Locked-down Pearl Harbor vet recalls fateful events 79 years ago
George Coburn was aboard the USS Oklahoma when the Japanese attack began on the U.S. Navy port in Hawaii
There was no commemoration ceremony planned Dec. 7 for George Coburn, one of San Diego County’s last surviving Pearl Harbor veterans.
COVID-19 safety precautions have ramped up sharply in recent weeks at Oceanside’s Fairwinds Ivey Ranch retirement community, where the 101-year-old Coburn lives. As a result, all resident gatherings have been canceled.
But that hardly matters to Coburn. He said he doesn’t need a ceremony to remember what happened 79 years ago on Dec. 7, 1941..
“Some of that stuff is indelible in my memory,” Coburn said in a phone interview Sunday, Dec. 6.. “You don’t forget something like that.”
On Dec. 7, 1941, Coburn was a 22-year-old Navy fire controlman first class serving aboard the USS Oklahoma when the unexpected morning attack by Japanese forces began on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The roughly 85-minute assault would kill 2,403 Americans, devastate the Pacific Fleet and propel the U.S. into World War II.
Coburn said Sunday, Dec. 6, that he was proud to serve his country in the Navy from 1938 to 1946. But he was never much one for ceremony. When the war ended he was eager to get on with his life and he lost touch with the men he served with in the war. When asked if he is the last survivor of the crew he knew aboard the Oklahoma, he said he’s not sure.
“I haven’t heard from anybody in many years now,” he said. “That was a long time ago.”
Coburn was below deck, making final preparations for an inspection of the Oklahoma when the ship’s P.A. system crackled to life at 7:53 that December morning. He remembers a frantic announcement: “All hands man your battle stations .... real planes, real bombs, no sh___!” Coburn thought some joker was playing with the microphone until the ship’s general alarm sounded.
As he and dozens of other men struggled to climb several floors to the main deck, a series of six torpedoes hit the ship. The men became trapped under a sealed hatch as the ship quickly listed 45 degrees to its port side. Oil tanks were ruptured in the blasts and a large pool of oil began collecting on the floor, causing men to slip and slide in the fast-rising pool. The lights went out and Coburn could hear water pouring into the ship. Men on the ladder frantically tried to open the hatch to the deck above and one of the anchors holding the ladder in place broke, so it began to swing wildly.
“Panic was growing,” Coburn wrote about that experience in his memoir. “Some were screaming, some were cursing and one called repeatedly for help from Mommy.”
Eventually the hatch was opened and the ladder held long enough for the men to climb up to the second, and finally, the main deck. The ship was beginning to roll upside down, so Coburn and a handful of men pulled themselves up through a side porthole, which was now overhead, to stand on the bottom of the inverted ship. Nearly 500 sailors trapped inside the Oklahoma’s hull that morning would die.
To avoid being shot by Japanese airplane gunners, Coburn leapt into the bay in the 75-foot gap between the Oklahoma and the USS Maryland. Bullets continued to rain down in the water and Coburn now faced an approaching slick of flaming oil from the USS Arizona explosion. He grabbed a mooring line hanging from the Maryland’s side, hauled himself up the rope to its deck and spent the rest of the raid handling ammunition for anti-aircraft guns.
Coburn was later assigned to the heavy cruiser USS Louisville and took part in several major battles in the Pacific Theater, including the Battle of Okinawa, where a kamikaze attack left him with shrapnel wounds.
In May 1946, Coburn retired from the Navy as a lieutenant junior grade, married his sweetheart, Jeanette, and later built a career as a Navy civilian contractor and electrician in San Diego and, later, Vista. After 60 years of happy marriage, Jeanette died in 2005. Coburn moved into Fairwinds in 2017, where he enjoys karaoke and dancing with his girlfriend, Nancy Belknap.
Marie Coburn, one of Coburn’s two children, said Sunday, Dec. 6, that her father experienced many horrors in the war, but he refused to demonize the Japanese he fought against. His lack of prejudice had a profound impact on Marie, since one of her best girlfriends since age 7 is Japanese-American.
“He looked at his military service as a job he did with honor and he didn’t let that poison him or make him bitter,” Marie said. “I’m so grateful for his strength of character to say ‘I was doing my job. So were they.’ He didn’t hold antagonism. He gave me the freedom to forge one of the best friendships of my life.”
In early 2019, World War II historian Linda Dudik of San Marcos worked with U.S. Rep. Mike Levin to honor Coburn with several long-overdue and never-awarded medals, commendations and a combat action ribbon for his war service. In a medal ceremony at Fairwinds in May 2019, he entertained his fellow residents with stories and jokes.
“People always say to me ‘thank you for your service,’” he quipped to the clearly adoring crowd. “I tell them I did it willingly, but I can’t say it was enjoyable and don’t ask me to do it again.”
— Pam Kragen is reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune
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