As Japanese torpedoes pierced neighboring battleships and shells hit his own the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Vincent Muirhead was deep inside the USS Maryland.
From his battle station in the Maryland’s fire control center, Muirhead couldn’t see the destruction around him. But through radio headsets and communications from sailors above, he got a "view” of the USS Arizona in flames and the USS Oklahoma rolling over next to the Maryland.
“It was a very safe place as long as the ship didn’t sink. And then if it sank, you couldn’t get out,” Muirhead said of his post. He said four men from his ship and more than 2,000 from others died that morning.
“One was in the same position as I was on the Oklahoma. Well, he didn’t get out.”
Muirhead, 97, of Lawrence, is one of a rapidly dwindling number of survivors of the deadly surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, which happened 75 years ago Wednesday and directly spurred the United States’ entry into World War II.
Muirhead said he does not know of any other living Pearl Harbor witnesses in Lawrence or the surrounding area.
He shared his recollections of that day, as well as how the experience shaped his life, with the Journal-World this week.
At his post inside the ship, one thing Muirhead said he doesn’t remember is fear.
“That was never a thought, I don’t think,” he said. “You haven’t got time to be frightened.”
A native of tiny Dresden, Kan., Muirhead spent a year at Kansas State University before entering the U.S. Naval Academy. He said he graduated from the academy on Feb. 5, 1941, earlier than normal because of the war, and just a day before his 22nd birthday.
On the Maryland, Muirhead was a rangefinder and optical officer. That was before the ship got radar, he said, and his job was to determine the position of the enemy.
The morning Pearl Harbor was attacked began like any other.
Muirhead and his roommate were in their room getting ready for breakfast, but they never made it to the mess hall.
“Things started happening,” he said. “We looked out the porthole and could see a plane going by real low.”
He could tell it was a Japanese plane.
Instead of going to breakfast all men were called directly to their battle stations, he said. The crew of more than 1,000 hurriedly filled in spots throughout the ship.
It took about 3 to 5 minutes to get there, another 15 minutes to get the ship watertight, and another 15 minutes to bring up ammunition and load guns in the turrets and anti-aircraft stations.
“The first wave ... was over before we were really ready to fire,” he said.
Muirhead guesses he was in his battle station about three or four hours before changing gears, when some sailors from the Maryland went to help other ships and he went up to man an anti-aircraft station, where he remained on watch the rest of the day.
He doesn’t remember his first look at the ships around him, including the capsized Oklahoma that had been tied up next to the Maryland on battleship row.
The Maryland, though blocked by the Oklahoma, was damaged but not as heavily as most of the other battleships.
“We could’ve gone to sea if we had to, but we couldn’t get out,” Muirhead said.
More than 2,000 Americans were killed in the attack with another 1,000 wounded.
Muirhead said he didn’t deal with that in the days that followed. Instead, he and crew mates were busy getting ready for war, including removing all “niceties” and unnecessary items from the ship.
One casualty of that process, he said, was a gas model airplane that he’d built himself and kept in his room on the Maryland.
“I got rid of it,” he said.
On Dec. 30, “battered yet sturdy,” the Maryland made it to Puget Sound Navy Yard for repairs, according to information from the Naval Historical Center. The ship emerged Feb. 26, 1942, repaired, modernized and ready for service, including operating as a backup force during the Battle of Midway.
Muirhead remained on the Maryland — changing to a turret officer after the ship was equipped with radar, manning 16-inch guns with 2,000-pound shells, he said — until he entered Navy flight training in 1943.
After a 24-year career with the Navy, Muirhead got out as a commander in 1961, he said. That year, he went to work for the University of Kansas, where he was a professor of aerospace engineering until retiring in 1989. He was chairman of the department for 12 years.
His wife, Bobby Muirhead, died in 2013, just short of what would have been the couple’s 70th wedding anniversary. He now lives with his daughter Sherry Muirhead — an avid war history buff herself.
Vincent Muirhead and his daughter have read all the books and seen all the movies on Pearl Harbor. They agree that some make good dramas but didn’t get things quite right.
Muirhead’s recommendation is the 1970 film “Tora! Tora! Tora!”
“That’s a good movie,” he said. “That’s the only one that’s made that I know of that gives a good picture of Pearl Harbor.”
Being at Pearl Harbor shaped Muirhead’s opinion on the United States using the atomic bomb on Japan. He said he supports the decision because it saved American and Japanese lives.
“I wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t have, as well as quite a few others,” he said.
His experience at Pearl Harbor also affected how Muirhead has viewed every U.S. war since.
He considers being prepared of utmost importance.
“We could get caught again,” he said.
Muirhead said he believes the country needs a strong military, excellent intelligence system and good foreign policy to go with it.
In World War II, Muirhead said, there was never any question that the United States was in it to win. He said he doesn’t think that was the case with subsequent wars such as Vietnam, Korea and conflicts happening now.
“You either get in to win, or you don’t get in,” he said.
Before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Muirhead said he and fellow sailors knew they were going to see war; they just didn’t know where or when.
While the attack in Hawaii was a surprise, their training was thorough.
The Naval Academy’s purpose was training men to be combat-ready, Muirhead said. Of the sailors on a ship like the Maryland, maybe half had been aboard 10 years, some even 20.
“They knew where they were and what they were doing,” Muirhead said.
“I think our ship, and any ship, was in good shape training-wise, but you have to have time to get ready.”