U.S. Coast Guard Oral History Program
Pearl Harbor: A Memoir of Service
RM 1/c George C. Larsen, USCG
Hitler had already attacked Poland and now was bombing Paris and the USA was talking about drafting young men for the Army. I was 21 years old by then and figured I’d be the first to be drafted, so the last thing I wanted to happen was to be drafted into the US Army. The depression was still going and the work I was doing was only part time warehouse work. Still living at home motivated me to join either the Navy or Marines. I saw a news reel at the local theater about a new record for life-saving by the USCG. It was about launching a life boat and saving a person who had fallen overboard in the open sea. They did it in less than 2 minutes! One of the seaman on the rescue team was a local sailor whom I recognized. After checking out the Navy recruiting requirements, six year enlistments, I found out that the Coast Guard had a 3 year enlistment requirement. So I quickly made up my mind to join the Coast Guard, which I did on October 29,1939, at the Custom’s House in San Francisco, California. I went through boot camp at Port Townsend, Washington. The training camp was in the throes of being organized and we had lots of things go wrong but we had a lot of training marching in the rain and howling winds of the Pacific Northwest. Most of the recruits came from Omaha, Nebraska and Council Bluffs, Iowa. We played a lot of football on the weekends, that’s where I came to respect those Midwesterner’s, they were tough, healthy young guy’s!
After training camp I was transferred to Government Island just before Christmas, Dec. of 1939. How lucky can you get? I was only across the San Francisco Bay from my folk's home in Mill Valley. As you probably know the Island is now called Coast Guard Island. My first duty there was working on the decommissioned icebreaker Northland. That lasted about a week. Then I was assigned to the cutter Ariadne, a 165-foot ship that was doing patrols up and down the California Coast watching for illegal drug drops from foreign ships and any necessary life-saving help that was needed. After 3 months they transferred two of us for duty on the now famous cutter, the Roger B. Taney, W-37, which was stationed In Oahu, Hawaii. We, Scott Berryman Sea 2/c and I, also Sea 2/c were taken from the CG Base over to Ft. Mason, in San Francisco, on a 75-ft patrol boat, where we boarded the Navy transport USS Henderson, AP-1, the transport that carried most of the Asiatic Fleet sailors to China, dropping us off in Pearl Harbor, where we were taken by car to the Taney. After 4 months more of training on the Taney and swimming in the harbor with Soogee, the ship's mascot -- a female mongrel -- and the crew, I was transferred to the buoy tender Kukui, a 185-foot twin-screw ancient vessel built around 1909. I made Sea1/c and started to strike for a rating of radioman early on and made it in about 7 months, thanks to RM 2/c Earle Blackwood. After doing maintenance on automatic range lights, climbing tall towers and handling radio traffic on board they transferred me to the shore radio station NMO, located at the Diamond Head Light House. The radio station was built in the light keepers cottage, which was a two bedroom, one bath house. Before starting my assignment there I had to take a second oath given by Chief Warrant H.M. Anthony that I would never tell anyone what kind of the activity they were doing at this station out side of handling regular commercial and Coast Guard communication traffic. I took this oath very seriously, and never told a soul about that activity until 1995 when I saw many articles on that kind of work, the U.S. Navy secret communication work during the war. What they were doing was copying Japanese Army and Navy signals from their Headquarters to all their station’s, such as fleet or army orders, or vice versa, we called it the Orange Code. I was ordered to start studying this strange code while working as a regular shore station operator. One of the experts in this field, M.E. Corey RM 1/c was my instructor, who told me if I became good at this, I would never get out of that assignment! I wondered what he meant by that?
In November, 1941, we were ordered to have a loaded .45 pistol at our operating positions, this started much speculation on whether we were going to get in the war with Japan and Germany, it sure looked like it from all the news media stories we saw. We found out that Army General [Walter C.] Short, the Army Commanding General in control of the Hawaiian Frontier was afraid of a 5th columnist factor in the Islands, that was the reason for the loaded 45’s. On December 7th, 1941,I was awakened at 7:55 AM local time, by a rattling and shaking of the building, I had come off watch at 2 AM and was very irritated that an earth quake had broken me out of a good sleep. Earthquakes were quite common in Hawaii. When I realized that it wasn’t an earthquake, I blamed the disturbance on the G*%-damned Army and their war games, however my watch partner who had relived me came off watch and told me that the USS Ward, a WW1 four-stacked destroyer, had depth charged a submarine off the Pearl Harbor entrance, he said, “the Ward sent the message into NPM the navy shore station and that he only recorded it figuring that we didn’t have to send it in to our Headquarters downtown. I said, “you might hear about this from H.M. Anthony”, which he did, later on. I was getting up by then and just as I slipped my dungarees pants on I heard airplane engine noise approaching, so I quickly ran to the back door of our house and got out side just as the planes were over head. There were three planes flying below the rim of Diamond Head, about 500 feet above me in "V" formation, low-wing type with big red dots on the underside about 2 feet in diameter. They flew right over me, as they disappeared towards Pearl Harbor.
I dashed back in the house to tell everyone that they had to be disguised Army planes, since I was thinking WAR GAMES only! Boy, was I embarrassed when we realized they were Japanese torpedo planes. Chief Kearns immediately started to organize the group into war-time status, although we still didn’t know what was going on, he assigned me back to covering 500 and 2670 KCS (HRZ now), which was OK with me. As we could see the entrance to Pearl Harbor out of one window and the Pacific Ocean westward out of another window from my operating position, I had a fairly good picture of what those Japanese planes were doing. The first thing I witnessed was three huge geysers of water shooting straight up for about 75 feet, each geyser about 25 feet apart in line from each other. I thought did an enemy ship fire three heavy shells towards the shore, by now we found out that it was a real attack through the local AM radio broadcast station in down town Honolulu, so as the geysers were collapsing I braced my self for the impact of the shells as I thought that the whole Japanese Navy was just over the horizon! When no shells arrived I thought maybe it was bombs dropped from a plane. I thought maybe they were dropped from a high altitude and that strong wind that comes over the mountains from the east probably pushed them past Diamond Head to hit in the ocean between us and the Diamond Head Buoy which we can see from my position. Later on I thought they could have been dropped by accident or some pilot chickened out but not likely.
The next thing that happened as I was trying to digest all that was happening, I spotted a destroyer coming out of the mouth of the Pearl Harbor entrances showing a lot of smoke coming out of her stack and running very slow, as if she didn’t have any power. I watch her as she gain more power and was speeding up when a huge geyser erupted just behind her like she could have dropped a depth charge or a plane had dropped a bomb and luckily missed her. Later on I found out the name of the destroyer was the Aylwin and one of the crew members on board now belonged to our local PHSA. His name is Frank Larsen and he confirmed what I saw that day, we call each brother now, since his last name is spelled exactly like mine, with an E. The next thing that happen was a commercial sport fishing boat called me on 2670 by radio phone and said “an Army Pilot had gone crazy and was shooting at them, wounding a guest on board, a Lieutenant Colonel, and we are sinking”. I sent the MAYDAY message into the District Office! The Lurline or Matsonia, a Matson passenger ship called me 500 HRZ wanting to know what was going on and I sent them word that we were being attacked by unknown enemy planes, Chief Kerns and I thought that the answer would be politically correct, since there was no contact with the higher ups at the office down town yet, we had to play it safe, the second wave was in bombing by then and we could see dog fights and heavy smoke billowing over Hickam Field and Pearl Harbor. At noon chief Kerns put me on guard duty with a .45 automatic and a pocket full of .45 cartridges, I put on my dungaree jacket in order to carry an extra clip and those cartridges. I checked out the perimeter of the grounds around the light house to edge of the down slope to the beach and to the highway in the front of our place, while doing so I watched three Army six-by’s go past the station loaded with soldiers and unload about 200 yards down the road from our location where an old search light site was located.
About ten p.m. that night I heard 2 rifle shots ring out, I remember those soldiers just past us and thought I better not get to close to that side with nervous soldiers around, it was completely dark and with blackout regulations in effect now, we had to be careful. When the guys inside heard the shots they panicked and sent a message to the District Office by teletype that I had been shot! They were very relieved when I walked into the house and ran into two of the radiomen digging a fox hole in our nice lawn, they thought that the Japanese had already invaded the island. At six a.m. three SOC biplanes (Navy) flew by heading for Pearl Harbor with their running lights on, they were about 500 ft above ground zero, about level with me as they passed by I aimed my pistol at them thinking if they were Japanese I maybe could have hit one of them. Just as they passed Ft. Derussy some trigger-happy Army machine gunner let loose with his .30 cal. gun throwing up a tracer every fifth shell trying to hit them, it only took the rest of the anti-aircraft gunners about one second to start firing, the results were they shot down all three planes. I was told that a Coast Guard vessel on patrol near Hilo saw the shells exploding and they thought that it was another Japanese raid. I patrolled the grounds until 8 a.m., December 8th. After finishing breakfast I was told to grab a few things like a tooth brush and a change of clothes, cause I was being transferred temporarily to the Kukui, they needed an extra operator cause they were going to put out all the automatic lights on the Islands. During our trip to the Island of Kauai and surrounding area we put out a light atop a 750 foot rock north of Niihau by shooting tracer’s at the gas bottle house because it was to rough to land at the only landing spot. It turned dark after we eliminated that light as we started back we got a message from NPM that there was a Japanese submarine lurking on the east side of Kauai. The skipper got nervous a started running very close to shore on our way to Port Allen, Kauai. We ran aground, we were so close I thought I saw coconut tree branches brush the side of the ship, not really but I was prepared to abandon ship, I had my cartoon of cigarettes and the strip cipher code boards in their leaded sacks safely in my hands. Being an expert skipper he got us off easily and we made it into Port Allen early in the morning. While at Port Allen the Army requested us to help them recapture Niihau Island, as a Japanese fighter pilot had crashed on the Island and had taken control of the natives with the help of two Japanese workers. So we went over to Niihau Island arriving a little after dusk with a squad of Army raider’s and four of the ships crew ready to jump ashore for the rescue, they were all armed to the teeth and ready to go. One of the men was my radio partner, an ex-Marine, I wisely volunteered to man the radio shack on board the ship. They came back about midnight with the pilot's belongings. They assembled in the radio shack, as this was the best quarters on the ship to discuss what they accomplished and to view what they found.
They told us that the pilot was dead. That he was killed by a Hawaiian during a fight with the Hawaiian, who started to grapple with the pilot, who was holding him at pistol point-blank range. The pilot fired his pistol three times hitting the native in the groin, thus enraging the Hawaiian who grabbed him around the waist and turned him upside down and smashed his head into the ground killing him instantly. The Hawaiian was a 6-foot 6-inch giant and the three shots to his groin apparently didn’t effect him that much. They end the story by telling us that his wife took out a knife and cut both of the pilots ears off. We then got to inspect all the items they brought back with them. First there was the synchronized machine gun from the fighter plane, then the fish skin water proof wrapping that the pilot had wrapped around his waist containing things like a high school student body card from a local Oahu High School, local maps, money and things necessary if he had to bail out over Oahu. The machine gun still had about twenty bullets hanging from the breach of the gun. I snapped one of the cartridge’s from the belt figuring it would be a easy souvenir to keep, which it was, (I gave it to the Kauai Museum on January 10, 1991). I asked where was the pilot and they told me that the wounded Hawaiian they brought aboard had killed him and that the natives were going to bury him on the island. They thought that the stuff they took from him would be enough to verify that he had been taken care of. One of the Japanese servants committed suicide and the other one wasn’t helping the pilot as he was forced to help them. The Hawaiian walked on board the ship and when we got back to Port Allen he insisted on walking from the ship to the ambulance, even though he had three bullets in his groin, he was one tough native.
After putting out all the automatic around Kauai Island, we headed back to Oahu. Before going into home base at Pier Four in Honolulu Harbor we were directed to go into Pearl Harbor and mark all the shipping hazards in the harbor. It was an ugly sight, being on loud speaker radio watch I was able to view all the damage that had been done. I could even see the badly bombed out hangers and wrecks over at Hickam Field. After a day of marking all the hazards we returned to Pier Four, in Honolulu Harbor. The cutter Tiger was tied up in front of us and my best friend Scott was stationed on her now, so we met on the dock as soon as we tied up. He told me they were looking for another radioman and would I like to take the assignment. Without hesitation I said yes I would like to get on a fighting ship like a sub-chaser, I felt that being on a ship fighting submarines would be better than working at the shore station NMO which was where I would return to after the temporary assignment to the Kukui.
I was assigned to the Tiger, W-132, the next day. H.M. Anthony came down to the ship to tell me that he wanted me to see him down town at the District Office that afternoon! So down town I went and met with Mr. Anthony. All he said was, “Larsen can you copy twenty words a minute”?, my answer was, “yes." He said, “good you are now 2nd class” WOW! You could have knocked me over with a feather. This all happened within less than a week! If you like any of this story I have written an auto-biography of my WW2 adventures and had it is published by Author House, a vanity publisher. The title of my book is, “ON THE EDGE Of WAR” and can be ordered directly from the publisher.
I agree with all those Coast Guard veterans who are unhappy about the way they have been classified as any thing but military. I’m the President of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter Two Pearl Harbor Survivors and there are only two of us (Coast Guard) in this chapter. Our historian has discovered us since I joined the PHSA and has written a very good history about the US COAST GUARD, his name is Martin Hoopes a retired Navy Chief Yeoman and a member of Bay Area Ch 2 Pearl Harbor Survivors!
My friend Scott P. Berryman is now a retired USCG Commander!
I have given many talks at Lions clubs, Rotary Clubs, Breakfast clubs and even yacht clubs and I have sold them a few of my books! I hope you can use some of this story. I am writing to you because of the article I read in my [U.S. Coast Guard Combat Veterans Association publiction] Quarter Deck Log, Issue 23, Volume 20, No. 3
Thank you. George C. Larsen (SWEDE) I’m really Danish! RM1/c 208-821. 10/29/39 to 11/2/45. Also I would like to say that I’ve meet some great Coastie’s at two ship’s reunions, the Transport group and the Taney group, and I’ve sold many books at these reunions, they all like my story.