As a Marine aboard the USS California, Ben Wicker had a front-row seat for the attack on Pearl Harbor
By Greg Langley
News Features editor
December 29, 2012
In 1940, Ben Wicker was just an adventurous kid kicking around Scotlandville when a military recruitment slogan grabbed his attention.
“I kept hearing over the radio about join the Marines and see the world and all that stuff,” Wicker said. “So I decided (to go).”
First he had to tell a bit of a fib.
“I went in in May of ’40. I told them I was 18 then, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t but 17,” Wicker said and chuckled a bit as he relaxed in a recliner in the living room of his comfortable home in Central.
Wicker’s just shy of 90 now, and he doesn’t hear all that well, but his memory is fine and he recalls his stint in the service quite well, especially one December day 71 years ago. He was aboard the USS California, a battleship at anchor at Pearl Harbor Naval Base, Hawaii. It was just before 8 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941.
“I was on guard duty on the forward fo’c’sle (forecastle). I saw a Jap plane, he came right (at me). He was on the starboard side of the ship, and he came right even with the ship going to Ford Island to bomb it. If I’d had something, I could have shot him down,” Wicker said.
He ruled out using his standard issue sidearm, a .45-cal. handgun.
“That’s what I had when that plane came by, that Japanese plane. I’d have just made him mad shooting at him with it.”
Events were happening too fast for Wicker to do anything anyway.
“About that time, a torpedo hit our ship, and I left there and went to my battle station.”
Chaos ensued. The California was hit by both torpedoes and bombs. Wicker, meanwhile, was at his battle station with other members of a crew that manned a 5-inch gun. They were ready, but the gun was useless to them.
“The first torpedo knocked out our elevators and everything that brought the ammunition up. So we had no ammunition to do nothing with,” Wicker said. “No ammunition. Not even for our rifles.”
“One ship tried to get away, and it had to beach itself. I believe it was the Nevada,” Wicker said. “We watched the Oklahoma just topple over, saw the men scrambling out there. That’s when we decided we’d better move out when it was tilting pretty heavy.”
“The ship (Nevada) tried to get under way. They had about five or six (Japanese) planes that swarmed it. They beached it, so it wouldn’t sink right there in the harbor,” Wicker said.
The commanding officer ordered the California to get under way, to make a run for it as the Nevada had tried to do, but it was too late. The ship was sinking. The order came down to abandon ship.
“We just jumped. The ship was listing, and we had to jump from the high side ’cause the island was toward the high side.”
“I think that saved us from getting some more torpedoes. That was the last thing we saw — we saw the Arizona and the others, we saw the Oklahoma — we saw it topple over. We just had a ringside seat, really,” Wicker said. “I didn’t have sense enough to even be scared.”
After sorting through the carnage that, according to Reuters News Service, left 2,390 Americans dead (1,177 on the Arizona), the Marines on the California were lucky.
“We lost one man. He was a communications orderly, and he’d been off. He’d had a death in his family, and he’d gotten back a few days before. I’d had his job while he was gone – communications orderly. When he came back, he took it over, and I got out of there. He’s the only man we lost,” Wicker said. “I wouldn’t be here (if he’d kept the job). Communications was down below, a couple of decks. We were kinda up at the top, above the quarterdeck.”
The two-hour surprise attack wounded 1,178 people, sank or heavily damaged 12 U.S. warships and damaged or destroyed 323 aircraft, Reuters reported. Wicker doesn’t think it should have happened.
“That was a big mess-up. Somebody was supposed to be watching (for the Japanese),” Wicker said. “They sent out planes every day, but I didn’t see none that day.”
Things were pretty disorganized after the attack, Wicker said.
“We just rambled around there for a couple of days. Me and my buddy went to where they had the mess hall on Ford Island. They had an injured sailor on just about every table in there. Some were bad, some weren’t so bad,” he said. “Then after that, we just rambled around there for a couple of days because nobody knew nothing. Finally, they sent us over to a harbor. Me and a buddy of mine and some more had guard duty at the brig.”
Eventually, sailors and Marines from the sunken ships were organized into a group.
“The Forgotten Men — it was all of us from different ships. We just had a sergeant over us.”
After Pearl Harbor, Wicker stayed on guard duty at the brig for a while.
“I stayed there for a little while. Then they brought the guns off the California and put them on Ford Island, and we manned them for a while. Then they up and sent us to another place where we were guarding some warehouses (still in Hawaii). I stayed there a long time.”
Wicker’s combat duty wasn’t over, though.
“I left there and made the invasion of the Marshall Islands,” he said. “We got in there just as they were cleaning it up, really didn’t have to fight too bad. On the island I was on there, they lost about 50-some Marines. They had them laid out there.
“And then I went to Jacob Island after being in the Marshalls. They were going to set up some guns over there. I wasn’t there but about two weeks, and they called my name out one night and told me to pack my sea bag, a motor launch was coming to pick me up. I was going home.”
So he “came back to Hawaii, caught another ship back to California.” The war might have been over for Wicker about then, but his enlistment was extended “at the convenience of the government.” He went to Camp Lejeune, N.C., for about six months, and then he was off to Northern Ireland.
“That’s where I was when the war ended. Northern Ireland. We had a radio station that we guarded over there,” Wicker said. It was pretty quiet duty except for the German submarines. “They had about 40 German submarines gave up to us there in Ireland,” he said.
After five years and six months, Wicker was out of the Marines, and he was glad, because during his brief stay in the states between duty in the Pacific and his posting to Northern Ireland, something had happened.
“When I was coming back from overseas, my buddy, I saw him walking down the sidewalk and I hollered at him and stopped him. We got to talking. I told him I was coming to Baton Rouge, and he said, ‘Well, I’ve got a girlfriend that’s working down there at Western Union,’” Wicker said. “That’s where I wound up with me and her.”
He took his buddy’s girlfriend he admits with a laugh. His wife of 67 years, Katrina, points out a photograph of the tall handsome young Marine who won her heart all those years ago. “That’s what grabbed my eye,” she said.
The Wickers had three daughters. Wicker got a job at Ethel and worked there 35 years before retiring.
“My oldest daughter died about two or three years ago. She was a writer. My other two, one of them lives here and one of them in Virginia,” he said.
Nowadays, the Wickers enjoy family get-togethers and hosting their four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
“We have been blessed,” Katrina Wicker said.