Fire Controlman 2nd Class Raymond Brittain, Powell

Age: 89

Ship: USS Tennessee, Navy

War fronts: Served 1940-1946, at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and elsewhere in the Pacific, including the Aleutian, Marshall and Gilbert Islands; Kwajalein, Tarawa, Saipan, Guam, Tinian, Leyte, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Brittain is a district director for the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, in charge of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

Family: Wife, Violet; two daughters, one grandchild, one great-grandchild.

His words: Brittain’s wife was a riveter. On the war on the home front: “We would have lost World War II if it hadn’t been for our ladies.”

On the Web: Watch more of Brittain’s story and see profiles of other veterans at

The sailor and his friend planned to get off ship that day. Maybe they’d bring some lunch with them, on a hike through the pineapple fields bordering Pearl Harbor. But first, breakfast.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, all enlisted men were aboard their ships -- about 1,500 people on the USS Tennessee, including 95 Marines. Men were awake and eating, and Raymond Brittain, on mess cooking duties, went to dump trash onto the garbage barge.

Sailors rigged the quarterdeck for church services; Marines raised the flag on the stern.

Brittain ran into a veteran sailor. They saw smoke billowing from nearby Ford Island. Brittain heard buzzing, like bees, up in the superstructure of his battleship. Then several planes appeared, just above the treetops on Ford, coming right at them.

My God, the old sailor said. Look at the meatball.

They saw sun disc emblems.

Those are Jap planes.

Brittain yelled for his shipmates to get on their guns. The Japanese were bombing.

No one listened. They laughed.

Brittain enlisted in the summer of 1940. His father was in the Navy, killed while serving on a destroyer when Brittain was still a baby. Brittain attended the University of California at Davis, studying to be an agronomist. Brittain and several friends left school to join the Navy.

“We knew we were going to war with Germany,” he said. “We just felt it.

“All this time, Japan, that word was never mentioned. Nothing. Zero.”

He was assigned to the battleship Tennessee and served as an anti-aircraft director operator, managing a five-inch battery.

The Navy ran routine drills. Battleships would leave Pearl Harbor for a week, and sailors would practice shooting. But in the months leading up to Dec. 7, veteran sailors said they’d never seen the Navy run so many training maneuvers before.

Brittain trained on the USS Tennessee, Oklahoma and Utah. By the end of the day Dec. 7, his ship would receive heavy damages and the other two would sink.

The Tennessee sat in Battleship Row with six others. Brittain ran up to the boat deck and was knocked flat on his back. Above him, he saw nothing but mud and water several hundred feet up. The West Virginia had been hit with torpedoes, sending a wall of muck from the shallow harbor skyward. The concussion broke all the glass on the Tennessee.

Brittain clamored up the ladder to his director station. He pried the locked door open with a dog wrench and began tracking bombers.

Where’s the Oklahoma? He asked another sailor.

She’s upside down.

“Just that fast,” he said. “The battleship was sitting right up in front of us to the left, and it wasn’t just even a minute I don’t think. … She turned right-side up, with her mast down in the mud.”

When the Arizona exploded, the left side of Brittain's body received flash burns. Leaking fuel buckled the Tennessee’s steel plating and set the ship on fire.

Two large armor-piercing shells hit Brittain’s ship, shells he believes are similar to the one that sank the Arizona. The first blew Brittain out of his station, knocking off his left shoe and sock, breaking his foot and lower leg. Shrapnel showered the West Virginia, killing its captain. The second shell didn't explode, but it went through 14 inches of pure steel armor, killing 22 of Brittain’s shipmates.

Through two waves and 354 planes, Brittain stayed in his station. The attack was over in less than two hours, but in the smoke and fire, Brittain was on ship all day. The Tennessee was credited with shooting down six Japanese planes.

About 7 p.m., Brittain finally made it to sick bay. He asked the hospital corpsman to cast his leg.

Look around you, the corpsman replied.

Wounded sailors were everywhere. There was no room. Many were so badly burned and had lain on mesh, chicken-wire stretchers for so long that their skin stuck to the wire when medical officers lifted them up. In total, 2,400 Americans died, and 1,180 more were wounded.

The corpsman gave Brittain a roll of tape, bandages and surrets of morphine.

That’s all I can do for you, he said.

Brittain has spoken about Dec. 7 many times over the years. His story even appears in “Forever a Soldier: Unforgettable Stories of Wartime Service,” a book published by the Library of Congress as part of their Veterans History Project. But how else would people know the truth, that war was nothing but hell?

“The only way they’re going to know it is from the lips of somebody who actually went through it,” he said.

He remembers the fifth day after the attack clearly still. The sailors heard splashes coming from the direction of the stern.

When it was light enough outside to see that morning, they realized what it was. Gas had built up in the bodies of the dead, men buried inside their sunken ships. Bodies floated through passageways, bursting to the surface.

Brittain was assigned to a working party to gather the drowned, burned bodies from the Arizona, West Virginia and his own Tennessee. They looped rope underneath the armpits and towed the men to an area called Aiea Landing.

Today, when Brittain and his wife travel to Hawaii, they visit Maui.

“We like Maui. But Oahu has got too many bad memories for me.”

This December, Brittain will see Oahu. He’ll be there, as a district director for the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, to help dedicate the new Pearl Harbor Museum and Visitor Center at the USS Arizona Memorial.

He’ll be there 69 years later, to honor the shipmates he lost that day.


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