At 101, USS Oklahoma survivor David Russell recently received an American flag during the 80th Pearl Harbor anniversary ceremony.
The Oregon native would have been 21 during Hawaii’s World War II attack. Thanks to the Best Defense Foundation, Russell came back to Hawaii this past week. The nonprofit organization, founded by former NFL linebacker Donnie Edwards, helps veterans revisit their old battlefields.
Pearl Harbor Survivor Made Split-Second Decision
David Russell was a Seaman 1st Class in 1941. When bombs started falling on the Nevada-class battleship, Russell descended into the ship for safety.
But then he changed his mind, and that decision likely saved his life.
“They started closing that hatch. And I decided to get out of there,” Russell told CBS News.
Russell remembers going topside when the attacks began. Twelve minutes later, his battleship capsized while under attack from many torpedoes. His training encompassed loading anti-aircraft guns, and he knew he could help others if a loader got hurt.
Russell said, “those darn torpedoes” kept hitting the Pearl Harbor-based ship, and he thought they would never stop. The boat kept jolting when the armaments hit it, and soon Russell was “walking sideways” as the warcraft turned.
Once he got to the main deck, he went over the ship’s side and managed to jump to the USS Maryland next door. He caught a rope on that shop and escaped without any injury. Jumping into the water would have turned fatal as leaking oil burned in the water.
Once he made it to the Colorado-class battleship, he didn’t stop. He helped pass ammo to that ship’s anti-aircraft guns during the Pearl Harbor attack.
In 2007, Naval officials determined that 429 sailors and Marines died on that vessel.
Russell Admits He was ‘Lucky’
After the battle, Russell went with two men to find a bathroom on Ford Island. Amid the casualties, the man saw a triage center with hundreds of wounded and burned sailors.
He told CBS that he didn’t smoke, but he got cigarettes for those Pearl Harbor victims.
Over the years, the man thinks about how lucky he was to make his decision, and at the same time, he often thinks about those men that stayed below deck.
Russell still thinks about how lucky he was. He ponders why he decided to go topside on the USS Oklahoma, knowing most of the men who stayed behind likely were unable to get out after the hatch closed.
Russell stayed with the Navy for another 16 years after Pearl Harbor. He retired but then worked on Air Force bases for another 20 years before his final retirement in 1980. CBS reported that the man’s wife died in 1999, but he still drives himself around Albany, Oregon. He also visits other American Legion veterans, reads military history, and watches television.