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This Pearl Harbor Vet’s Lucky Reassignment Kept Him Alive

By Katie Lange
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

“I’m awful, and I should be my best today.”

Navy veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor Floyd Welch is one of few remaining World War II vets who’s still alive to tell his story, but even that’s become an endeavor. The 95-year-old veteran struggled to put his thoughts together when I visited him at his home in Connecticut.

Pearl Harbor veteran Floyd Welch stands near his World War II medals at his East Lyme, Connecticut, home in December 2014. Photo by John Shishmanian/NorwichBulletin.com. Used by permission.

Pearl Harbor veteran Floyd Welch stands near his World War II medals at his East Lyme, Connecticut, home in December 2014. Photo by John Shishmanian/NorwichBulletin.com. Used by permission.

“I’m getting worse. I can see it day by day,” the former sailor said, clearly upset about it. Thankfully, his wife, Marjorie, and daughter Janet were there to help him put the pieces together. In fact, his wife reminded him precisely of what came over the loudspeaker of his ship, the USS Maryland, that fateful Hawaiian morning: “We’re under attack by the Japanese, and this is no sh*%!”

Welch laughed, remembering, “That’s exactly what I was going to tell her!”

A Morning of Chaos

On Dec. 7, 1941, Welch was a 19-year-old electrician on the Maryland. He had just finished showering when he heard “away fire and rescue!” over the ship’s loudspeaker.

Navy electrician Floyd Welch poses for a photo with his mother (left) and grandmother. Photo courtesy of the Welch family

Navy electrician Floyd Welch poses for a photo with his mother (left) and grandmother. Photo courtesy of the Welch family

“I ran with my clothes under my arm and just about got to the fire and rescue station when they changed it to general quarters,” Welch said, referring to his assigned battle station, which was with a repair party below deck. “You can imagine the mess it was – everybody changing in these narrow alleys, up and down the ladders and so forth.”

He heard the attack before he ever laid eyes on its destruction.

“Three decks down was where I was at that time, and from the torpedoes and bombs being dropped, I could hear it quite plainly. But none of us believed that we were at war,” Welch said.

That changed when the Maryland was hit in its forecastle by two torpedoes, which tore holes in the side of the ship below the water line.

Lucky Break or Divine Intervention?

The Maryland was the least damaged of all the battleships, but it still lost four men that day.

“I could have been one of those,” Welch said.

USS Maryland (BB-46) alongside the capsized USS Oklahoma (BB-37). USS West Virginia (BB-48) is burning in the background. Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy, National Archives collection.

USS Maryland (BB-46) alongside the capsized USS Oklahoma (BB-37). USS West Virginia (BB-48) is burning in the background. Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy, National Archives collection.

Welch was moved into the repair party a few weeks before the attack. His original general quarters had been the secondary battery air-compressor room, which just happened to be one of the areas damaged by the torpedoes that struck the Maryland.

Repair crews weren’t able to pump all the water out of the damaged compartment right after the attack, so it was sealed off until Dec. 30, when the Maryland arrived at the shipyard in Bremerton, Wash. Once crews finally pumped all the water out, they found the body of Welch’s replacement in the compressor room. He had either drowned or been killed by the explosions.

“That could have been me in that torpedo air compressor instead of that fella,” Welch said.

Helping the Oklahoma

The Maryland had been tied up against concrete quays at Ford Island, with the USS Oklahoma on the neighboring outboard-site – the preferable place to dock, thanks to its cool breezes. But in this case, the Maryland was lucky to be on the inside; the Oklahoma was torpedoed five times and rolled onto its side in a matter of minutes. By the time Welch got to the top of the ship, it had already capsized.

An aerial view of salvage operations on the USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor. U.S. Navy photo

An aerial view of salvage operations on the USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor. U.S. Navy photo

“She rolled over toward us and pinned us up tight against those concrete quays,” Welch remembered.” “We had to use dynamite to blow them up and let us go out.”

Welch and his fellow shipmates became crucial to the rescue of the Oklahoma’s surviving sailors.

“The first thing they did with us was they put every little boat that wasn’t damaged – even those that took garbage from us – to work trying to save these people who jumped overboard,” Welch said. “The oil on top of the water was … all ablaze. So, [Oklahoma’s sailors] dove over into the water, and they came up in fire.”

Several of Welch’s shipmates searched for survivors in tugboats, while others lowered rope ladders to them from the Maryland’s deck.

“We were short men to man the 5-inch 38s and the machine guns and so forth. Those that we’d bring aboard – there were quite a few of them who weren’t hurt very bad — we’d put to work,” Welch said. “But those who were pretty well banged up, we would put them down where doctors could work on them.”

Others on the Maryland had water pumps going at full pressure to keep the fiery oil from reaching them, all while hiding under turrets to find cover when the Japanese planes returned.

The Maryland’s remaining sailors began the long and difficult process of cutting holes through the bottom steel plates of the Oklahoma, where they heard trapped crewmembers tapping on the hull. Nearly 430 sailors and Marines on the Oklahoma died that day — a loss of life that was second only to the 1,100 lost on the USS Arizona, which remains underwater to this day.

Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island. View looks about east, with the supply depot, submarine base and fuel tank farm in the right center distance. A torpedo has just hit USS West Virginia on the far side of Ford Island (center). Other battleships moored nearby are (from left): Nevada, Arizona, Tennessee (inboard of West Virginia), Oklahoma (torpedoed and listing) alongside Maryland, and California. On the near side of Ford Island, to the left, are light cruisers Detroit and Raleigh, target and training ship Utah and seaplane tender Tangier. Raleigh and Utah have been torpedoed, and Utah is listing sharply to port. Japanese planes are visible in the right center (over Ford Island) and over the Navy Yard at right. Japanese writing in the lower right states that the photograph was reproduced by authorization of the Navy Ministry. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photograph

Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the Pearl Harbor torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island. Battleship Row’s ships were on the far side of the photo, including the Nevada, Arizona, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Maryland, and California. Japanese planes are visible over Ford Island and over the Navy Yard. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command

After

The Maryland remained Welch’s home for the next four years, until he was discharged from the Navy in 1946. He returned to his Connecticut hometown, where he met and married his wife. They have six kids and several grandchildren, including two girls who are currently in the Navy.

While his memory was a bit spotty the day we talked, his love for his service was not.

“I look back, and I think the best days were the Navy days. I was so happy with the work I was doing, and I didn’t have to pull the trigger to kill somebody,” Welch said. “I was doing a job to keep that ship running. … I had to keep my electrical circuits top shape, and I enjoyed doing it.”

Related Stories:

Many Lives Were Lost At Pearl Harbor. This Man’s Just Began
Rarely Told Pearl Harbor Stories of Female Military Nurses
Vet, 94, Recalls Friend’s Lifelong Regret Over Pearl Harbor
Pearl Harbor Survivor: USS Arizona Came ‘Completely Out of the Water’
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