One of the seven 18-inch torpedoes had ripped open the captain's stomach, killing him almost instantly. The lights went out, and the ship was sinking. Smoke and fire billowed everywhere. Even the water's surface was on fire from leaking engine oil.
The frightened screams of wounded men aboard the U.S.S. West Virginia, anchored at Pearl Harbor, sounded above the unrelenting machine gun fire raining down from low-flying convoys of Japanese warplanes overhead.
Amid the violent inferno, a 19-year-old San Franciscan who only a few short weeks before was working as a lifeguard at the posh Royal Hawaiian Hotel in nearby Honolulu, sprang into action.
Newly minted Navy Seaman 1st Class John Harold Chapman dove into the water that now filled the capsized ship and began rescuing men, badly burned and with broken bones, trapped below the decks.
Over the next excruciating hours while the Japanese bombing continued, Chapman saved dozens of sailors' lives despite blood trickling continuously from the shrapnel painfully lodged in his neck.
When he couldn't find ladders he cut cargo netting for the men to climb. He cut larger pieces of netting to use as stretchers for those who couldn't climb. He helped get them over to the U.S.S. Tennessee while under constant gunfire. The U.S.S. Arizona blew up less than six feet away.
More than 2,402 Americans were killed in the surprise attack that propelled the United States into World War II. The
The 89-year-old Concord resident recalled that, at times, the motorboat was so full of rescued sailors it started to take on water and could not take on more survivors. He said he would come back for them, and he did.
At the time, he gave no thought to his own safety.
"I grew up during the Great Depression. We didn't have any money. I was used to hard times," Chapman said at an event in his honor. "It stabilized me. I had no fear."
He also said that Psalm 23 his mother had made the family recite every Sunday also came to him in that moment. "The words, 'Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil for thou art with me' came into my mind. God was with me and He said, 'Take charge.' "
Fortunately, Chapman's historical Pearl Harbor experience is now preserved in an oral history transcript by Patsy Joyce Everette, a Concord resident who volunteers for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project. Three years ago, when she started recording Chapman's Pearl Harbor recollections, Everette realized she was listening to an unsung hero's tale.
Chapman had never told his story to anyone outside of his family and local high school kids. Everette immediately began trying to get recognition for him.
After three years of getting nowhere with the U.S. Navy, Everette called the Concord office of Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, last December for help. Staffer Elise Amaya answered the phone; she had just completed three years of active duty with the U.S. Air Force and is a member of the Air Force Reserves. She went to work on Chapman's case.
On Jan. 27, the Navy's head of Congressional Affairs awarded Chapman a Purple Heart medal. In addition, the Navy sent replacements for 16 other medals and battle stars that Chapman -- who served in the Korean War and Vietnam as well as World War II -- had been awarded but lost in a house fire in 1975.
Chapman said he had been trying without success for more than 30 years to get replacements from the Navy.
"After all these years of going out to my mailbox everyday, I am grateful to Congressman Miller for helping me finally get these," Chapman said.
Ever patriotic, Chapman had requested that Miller present the Purple Heart to him on Flag Day, June 9. It was at this Flag Day celebration dinner, hosted by the local Elks lodge in Walnut Creek, where Chapman received his Purple Heart nearly 70 years after the fact. His proud wife, kids, grandkids and great-grandkids were looking on.
"This is better than a book or a movie," Miller told the group before pinning Chapman's medal, "because it is real. We salute you. The nation salutes you," he said to Chapman at the medal presentation.
Everette, who spoke at the event, highlighted the urgency of recording the wartime memories of World War II veterans as more reach the end of their lives.
"When I started doing this in 2004, about 1,000 World War II veterans were dying everyday. Now, we are losing 2,500 World War II (vets) everyday," she said.
She has recorded the stories of more than 100 local World War II veterans.
Chapman, who still has Popeye the Sailor-esque burly forearms, seems determined not to go anywhere soon.
"I do 100 push-ups and sit-ups everyday," he said when asked the secret of his enduring health. "I also still swim and water ski."
Part of what motivates Chapman to stay fit is his determination to continue speaking about his Pearl Harbor experiences at area high schools.
"The kids at a high school class where I spoke recently did not even know that we had ever been at war with Japan," he says with sad amazement.