My dad witnessed the horror of Pearl Harbor firsthand. But his letters never let on
Updated December 7, 2022 at 10:13 AM ET
This story was originally published on Dec. 7, 2021.
My dad's story starts two years before Pearl Harbor, on a summer day in Sioux City, Iowa.
There, 18-year-old Art "Bud" Montagne left a note behind in an empty house. To his parents and six younger brothers and sisters, he wrote: "I've joined the Navy. I'll write when I get to California."
His family was still struggling out of the Depression. Even with a small scholarship, this high school track star couldn't afford to go to college. The Navy offered a shot at radio school.
Soon, his mother received a gleeful letter.
"I've been accepted into the radio gang," Art wrote.
What's more, having graduated at the top of his class, the young sailor was assigned to the USS California, the flagship of the Battle Force, handling the Admiral's communications.
He was headed for Hawaii.
His early letters home revealed a wide-eyed boy on the adventure of a lifetime. Papayas tasted like "marshmallows". He assured his mother people did not live in grass houses and Honolulu was more modern than Sioux City.
"Dear Mom, having quite a time in Honolulu. Hula dances on the ship, swimming in Waikiki. I got a snapshot of Dorothy Lamour. But as I didn't have a pencil or anything, I didn't get her autograph. She is quite pretty. Bette Davis comes in today. Have to go on watch now. Love, Bud."
But, after months at sea, Art's letters turned more serious.
"Pearl Harbor is guarded like a mint," he wrote in the spring of 1940. "The whole fleet is bottled up in that small harbor."
"All any enemy would have to do is sink a ship in the outlet and the fleet would be done for."
Making friends and falling in love
Come March of 1941, the young sailor was still swept up in the moment.
He wrote home of his best friend and fellow radioman, a teenaged Texan named Joe Ross. Charismatic and a bit wild, all the girls swooned over Joe. Even the guys allowed he looked just like the Hollywood heartthrob Tyrone Power.
The two buddies had hatched a plan to transfer to the Royal Canadian Air Force to fight the Germans alongside the British, something permitted by the U.S. Navy.
At this point, London had survived the blitz, France had fallen and Dunkirk was history.
So in October of 1941, on leave back in Long Beach, the first thing Joe and he did was head for the Canadian consulate, only to hear, "We're sorry, but you're a few months too late."
The U.S. had decided it needed all the men it had in uniform.
This turn of events did leave Joe free to go back to Abilene, Texas, and propose to his high school sweetheart.
It meant Art had a few days to indulge his passion for big band music and dancing back in Long Beach.
One night he walked into the Crystal Ballroom and spotted a girl so pretty he did something unusual: He hesitated before asking her to dance. But she was happy to.
"I took her out on the dance floor and realized right away she didn't know California-style dancing," Art recalled.
"And I said, 'You must have come from Iowa.' And she said, 'No, as a matter of fact, I grew up in Nebraska.' So she didn't know the Palladium Shuffle or the Balboa Hop and some of our California dances."
Her name was Ellene, and Art was overwhelmed with a desire to see her once more before shipping out the very next night. Though she had other plans, Ellene accepted a date with a young sailor, who was, after all, heading to the Pacific for months to come.
"We went to a very nice place in Long Beach and we sat down and ordered a round of drinks," he recalled. "And here comes my friend Joe Ross. He's back, ready to go aboard ship, after giving his girl a ring set. And he's in uniform."
"I introduced him to ... Ellene, and when I go to the men's room, old Joe Ross leans over and says, 'Come on, why don't you ditch [Art] and come out with me?'"
Looking back, Art laughs about it: "It was a joke, but he did approach her!"
By evening's end, Art was hooked.
"It was the first girl I'd ever met that I really was smitten with. It's kind of like love on first sight," he said.
Art remembers mentioning the word "marriage", but at midnight both he and Joe had to catch a boat back to their ship.
Three weeks later, on December 5, 1941, the USS California pulled into Pearl Harbor. The next day, Art went ashore to check out the fleet's Saturday night Battle of the Bands. The real battles seemed far away.
He did some Christmas shopping: muumuus for his sisters; games for his little brothers. And for the girl back in Long Beach, he bought an opal ring. On the way back to the ship, he made a special trip to the Honolulu post office to mail it to her.
That turned out to be the difference between the ring being delivered, or lost forever in the sunken mail room of the USS California.
It began with a plane and ended in flames
"So the next morning, on December 7th, I woke up, had a cup of coffee, and about 7:50 I hear this tremendously loud clang, clang, clang followed by the bugle call, which was our signal to go to battle stations," Art recalled.
Radioman Second Class Art Montagne raced to his battle station, high above the main deck, on the flag deck to join the Admiral's staff.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the first wave of 353 Japanese bombers, fighting planes and torpedo planes darkened the clean blue sky.
"I could look out and see the Japanese planes, which were just airplanes to me. I thought it was just a drill that nobody told us about," Art said.
"I saw two of them approaching us just about the level of my eyes across the harbor, and they obviously were two torpedo planes. And about half the distance across the harbor they dropped their torpedoes.
"Then I started watching the rivulets of the torpedoes coming and approaching the ship. And then they disappeared from my view, and a fraction of a second later they hit the side of our ship. The ship shook. Water blew 50 feet in the air above the sides. And immediately the ship started easing to the port.
"The planes, as they got to the ship, they had to fly over it, they zoomed up. And here were these great big red balls on the bottom of the wings. And that's when we knew this was no drill."
It was just past 8 in the morning. The attack on Pearl Harbor had begun minutes before and the USS California was already ripped open. Water rushed into the lower decks, ruptured the fuel tanks, and knocked out the electrical system, rendering useless the mechanized hoists to send up ammunition to the anti-aircraft guns on the top deck.
Suddenly, the radiomen could no longer communicate with the rest of the fleet.
Across the island, Japanese planes were already bombing hundreds of U.S. fighter planes, sitting out in the open that Sunday morning.
"It was a kind of crazy scene where planes were going here and there and you look up and say, 'OK, where are our planes?' You know, what I expected to see, like the movies, our planes come sailing down out of the sky and start chasing these guys and shooting them down. There wasn't a plane."
"But I looked back and the USS Oklahoma had capsized and all I could see was the bottom of the vessel, totally tipped over. And the men on the Oklahoma, all you could see were their heads bobbing and pretty soon a lot of small boats were dashing out there to help rescue all these men. There were literally hundreds of men out there swimming. Several hundred of them never escaped.
"About that time, that's when the Arizona blew. And when the Arizona blew up, it was several explosions, just tremendous sounds. And we couldn't see too much back there because of the black smoke, and by this time the oil in the harbor started burning."
Those two battleships accounted for most of the 2,403 deaths that morning.
Deep inside the USS California, the tough, but revered Chief Radioman Thomas Reeves was caught in a dark passage that was fast filling up with oil-slicked water, deadly fumes, and flames.
But Chief Reeves stayed below with his men to send up ammunition as long as they could, in a kind of bucket brigade.
"Some of the 10 radio men who were killed that day were there with Reeves passing ammunition," Art said.
Less than two hours later, as the last Japanese planes disappeared over the horizon, the men on the USS California were told to abandon ship. First, they helped their wounded into rescue boats, many of whom Art remembers were horribly burned, some with flesh melting off their arms.
"The ship had been bombed on its upper deck. The ship was slowly sinking. It was aflame," he said.
"To get off, we had to climb down the starboard side. I got down there in the oily water and it seemed like it was six inches deep in oil, but you had to stick your head under the water when the flames came near you, so you'd swim under the water."
A young man was forever changed
Safe on shore, Art never saw his best friend again.
"He didn't make it. Among the bodies that were found was Joe Ross. We were told that they found him next to the body of Chief Reeves," Art said.
For the first time, Art "Bud" Montagne couldn't write home about his adventures with Joe Ross. He couldn't tell any stories at all about the radio gang or the ship, or about what he'd just lived through. The government did not want the unimaginable damage to the fleet made public.
His next letter, postmarked "Pearl Harbor December 11", is stamped: "Passed by naval censor."
"Dearest Mom, how is every little thing at home? Fine, I hope. There's something I wish you would do for me. I became engaged to a girl in Long Beach when I was last there and I wish that you would write to her. Someday she will be your daughter-in-law, and now that I can't get back to introduce her to the family myself, I guess you will have to take it upon yourself to write her. Her name is Ellene. Write to her, will you, Mom? And I feel sure that she will wait for me. If she don't, that's just my loss. Well, goodbye for now and all my love, Bud."
Several days after Pearl Harbor, Art had come to the realization that any plans he may have had were changed for years to come. The only thing that was in focus now was fighting the war.
As it turned out, the girl in Long Beach didn't wait. Ellene learned to fly, and got her pilot's license. She had a series of wartime jobs, as did so many women newly entering the workforce.
She skied down a hill in a bathing suit, just because she could. And she got engaged to two more suitors as they headed off to war.
Come 1945 Art Montagne was still in uniform, now commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marines, preparing for a planned invasion of Japan. But in August, the US dropped two atomic bombs and the war was suddenly over.
So Art looked up that girl, Ellene, again. And when they met, she was still wearing his opal ring.
Not long after, they eloped.
Chief Radioman Thomas Reeves was awarded posthumously the Medal of Honor. Joe Ross received a posthumous Purple Heart
Seventy years later, almost to the day, on December 5, 2011 we laid my dad Bud to rest at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, commonly known as the "Punchbowl". Along with my mother Ellene, he now lies near both Joe and Chief Reeves.
They have taken their place in history, in a space high above Pearl Harbor, with the Hawaiian name "Puowaina" — Hill of Sacrifice.
Patrick Wood edited this article. Visuals editor Catie Dull photo edited the article.
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