Minnesota's Greatest Generation

Lyman C. Irrgang: Eyewitness to Infamy

Most Minnesotans heard about the Japanese strike on Pearl Harbor from the radio. Lyman Irrgang of Nicollet, Minnesota, recently arrived in port aboard the USS Utah, witnessed the attack first-hand. The experience left a vivid impression, as related in the following excerpt from his memoir.

Memoir Excerpt

I heard the news about Pearl Harbor first hand. We'd got in from Wake Island on that forty-eight days I was telling you about on Friday evening, December 5, 1941, and then Friday night one section had liberty and Saturday evening I had liberty and went to town. I can't remember what we did in Honolulu but on the way home, about...on the way back to the ship about eleven o'clock at night I run into Jesse Jensen from Nicollet and he was at an outdoor beer garden and roller skating rink. I talked to him a while and he said well, come over tomorrow to the USS Oklahoma and then we'll go over to the USS Arizona and see Ed Wentzlaff. So that's what I was doing the morning of Pearl Harbor. I was shaving and I saw them drop a regular bomb on Ford Island, which was a Navy Air Force base...airbase across the bay. And it had been common to see planes practicing and they would drop one pound bags of flour and then they knew if they hit their target or not. I said to the guy next to me shaving, I said, "Look at there. They've got a live one in with some of the dummies." And about that time a plane come by our barracks and turned and we could see the rising sun on the wings so we knew it was Japanese. About that time the master at arms come and said everybody back to their boats. And on the way down...because at that time we didn't have no air conditioning and the duty section stayed aboard and the other two sections could go up to the barracks and sleep. On the way down to the...back to the boat I saw the USS Arizona blow up. My God! The flames must have gone...I don't know...I'd say five hundred feet into the air. Because it just blasted up. And then...so naturally I did not get to go to the USS Oklahoma and the strange thing was Jesse Jensen was killed on the Oklahoma and Gerry Leonard’s brother, Ed Wentzlaff, was on the Arizona and he lived. And he's still living today.

We had an officer there who had us try to train our six-inch guns on the high altitude bombers that were flying over. And of course those guns, six-inch guns, wouldn't train that high. And it took quite a while before they got to our magazines and we got fifty calibers and twenty-millimeter guns out. And our duty officer and the duty officer on the USS Dolphin who was tied up next door to us, shot down a plane. It landed right on our stern. And about three days later they fished the plane out with the pilot aboard and he was all swollen up and everything. That was my first death that I saw real close. But during December 7 they brought many people that were burned and soaked with oil in right next to us because we had a pretty good hospital on the base. That's where they were taking them to.

Then when I did get back on board, the torpedo planes come right down behind us and they were only flying fifty, seventy-five feet high because they were going to drop their torpedoes and if they dropped them from too high and they went down they'd hit bottom. I think the water there was about twenty-five feet deep because we drew seventeen ourselves. And the torpedoes would go across from behind us and straight to the battleships where they were tied up about...almost a half a mile away from us. Then horizontal bombers come over after the torpedo planes and they knew just how high to fly because at that time everybody was...we all had our guns going and everybody was firing at them. They were firing tracers so you could tell that our ammunition couldn’t even get up high enough. It just...turned and came back to earth under the planes. Now they suspected that the Japs would send a landing force in so they called us all up to the base and gave us thirty-aught-six rifles but we carried them around all day and nothing happened.

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Irrgang, Lyman C. Minnesota Historical Society Oral History Collection, 2006.