Thomas Berg (1922-2020)

To say that Tom Berg’s death at an age just shy of 98 years was unexpected is a testament

to the man’s life and work ethic. In the few days preceding his passing April 24, he and his

wife of 21 years, Lesa Barnes, hauled 1,600 pounds of yard waste to the county facility. He

baked a chocolate cake and he and Lesa enjoyed every crumb. He unburied a cinderblock

retaining wall and moved the blocks away for another project. He axed apart two stumps.

He downed two trees, then cut them up for splitting. On the day before his passing, he and

Lesa were designing a new vegetable garden, and he created yet another gadget to make

Lesa’s life better. Tom went to bed Thursday night fully expecting a good and productive

Friday.

 

Thomas Berg was born to Norwegian immigrants on July 19, 1922, in Aberdeen, Washington.

Tom graduated from high school in 1940. Shortly after he turned 18, he enlisted in the

U.S. Navy. Following boot camp in San Diego, he requested assignment to the USS Arizona

to be with a high school buddy who had joined up a year earlier. His request was denied,

and he was assigned to the USS Tennessee. (As things went, this was fortunate.)

 

On the morning of December 7, 1941, the USS Tennessee was moored in front of the USS

Arizona, with battleship USS West Virginia moored along the port side. In his own words:

 

After breakfast, about 0735 I was in my dungarees for cleaning day in my assigned boiler room preparing for Admiral’s inspection on Monday, 8 Dec. But first I needed some fresh air so I took a walk around the forward deck topside. About 0750, I was going down the port ladder to the main deck when I noticed an airplane pulling out of a dive north of Ford Island and a detonation plume of water behind the airplane, and I notice that the airplane had red circles on its wings as it flew over us. I casually thought this must be a realistic Army Air exercise and I continued on down to my second deck living space in the "Boiler" division.

 

I was sitting on a Port side bench when a clarinet player from the ship's Morning Colors band came running through our compartment, shouting, "The Japs are bombing us! We he had just gone berserk. Then the USS West Virginia was hit with the first torpedo. The impact of the West Virginia against the Tennessee boosted me into the middle of the compartment where I landed on my feet; Immediately ammunition conveyor trunks in our compartment began rumbling then the five-inch anti-aircraft guns began firing. Everyone went automatically to general quarters.

 

As soon as I got down to my Boiler room no. 7 I replaced the manhole cover for the double bottom which had been removed for Admirals Inspection. With Manhole covers removed for double bottoms and void compartments, watertight integrity was missing.

 

I was my boiler room phone talker and was connected to all other boiler rooms and the Smoke Watch guy on the Navigation Bridge. He was giving us the awful and unbelievable details of the action topside: The USS Oklahoma was listing over, the USS West Virginia sinking to the quarterdeck, awash and burning, and the USS Arizona in back of us was lost in fire and smoke, About 8:10 a1600 pound bomb penetrated the Arizona alongside turret #2 that ignited the main battery ammunition storage of 1.7 tons of powder. The concussion wave came down the smoke pipe and blew the fire from the burners and into the operating area with putrid yellow sulfuric gas smoke that gagged everyone and singed a lot of hair.

 

About 9 o’clock the heat and smoke caused everyone on the Nav Bridge to leave and I had no more contact with the outside world.

 

Soon we felt the vibrations of the propellers and thought we might be getting underway. However, the propellers were being used to wash away the water surface oil fire from the ruptured hulls of the USS Arizona and USS West Virginia The heat from this fire around the stern half of the Tennessee above the waterline completely scorched the aft half of the ship which was officers’ quarters. The fire hoses saved the teak deck but not the sides of the ship.

Late Sunday night, when general quarters were relaxed, I was sent to the second deck to refill our three-gallon water canister. I went up to the boat deck to get a view of the ships and the harbor, but it was dark, total blackout, the only lights were the fires still burning on the ships; everything shoreside was blacked out. We did have lights on inside our ship. In the living quarters, the deck was covered with pulsing fire hoses and debris. Many of the personnel lockers were broken loose from the deck mountings and were on the deck, opened with their contents (clothing and junk) strewn about. I had to wade through the debris and chaos to get to the water fountain. I gladly returned to tidiness of our Boiler Room. Later still that night word was passed to come up to the second deck for sandwiches. I had forgotten to be hungry. We were grateful to get those sandwiches (a ham concoction spread on buns). It was comforting to know that some semblance of order still existed, and that the galley was operating.

 

Monday morning, I was able to leave the boiler room and go topside for a daylight look. The sight was a nightmare. The five-inch anti-aircraft guns were still manned by the weary gun crews, their faces black with soot and grime. The blue paint hung in ribbons from the gun barrels, melted from Sunday's lengthy firing. Empty five-inch shell casings covered the gun deck knee deep and it was difficult to wade through them. Men with all types of machine guns manned the perimeter of the ship, awaiting return of the Jap planes or an army invasion.

Rumors of an approaching Jap invasion fleet were rampant.

The sick bay on the Tennessee was in the forward end of the main deck on the ship. Casualties were overflowing into the first division compartment. Men lay on camp cots with all variety of injuries, with bandages and tourniquets.

 

The USS Arizona and USS West Virginia were still smoldering. The port side quarterdeck of the West Virginia was awash. The USS Oklahoma had only the starboard side bottom and propeller above water. One sailor told me about the padlocks on the doors to our ammunition storerooms and how the keys were in possession of the Chief Gunners who were ashore. He had destroyed the padlocks with a fire ax and proceeded to open any padlock he could find. Another damage control man told how he and others went aboard the USS West Virginia and flooded the starboard side tanks and how they saved the ship from capsizing, as the USS Oklahoma had done. Just ahead of the USS Tennessee, the stern of the USS Maryland was higher than normal: Some forward magazines and storerooms had been flooded because of a bomb that went through the forward part of the ship. The sight of the bottom of the USS Oklahoma protruding above the surface of the water, with men and equipment all over it, was awful. I could imagine the agony and fear of the men trapped inside.

 

On Monday and Tuesday, I had boiler watches. General quarters sounded often even when it was our own planes trying to land. Friendly fire was a big problem that week. Too many trigger-happy men all over Oahu were being told to use restraint. General quarters always sent me back to Boiler Room no. 7 when I was not on some other work detail.

 

On Wednesday, during the day we observed boats going around picking up bodies. The bodies were floating head down with only their backs showing, like pillows, the rest of the body hanging down under the surface.

 

I was put on a work party in the officers’ country on the second deck aft to scrape the blistered paint. Temporary lights had been strung through the area since all the wiring had been destroyed. I think I was in the Captain’s or Admiral's pantry where I noted the cups, saucers, plates and other fine bone china were all charred and black-smoke-damaged. This work was just busy stuff that would never be finished, so I later excused myself and took an inspection tour of the damage done to the USS Tennessee by two heavy armor-piercing bomb hits.

The second bomb came down alongside the main mast (the aft cage mast), crushed the airplane catapult track on main battery turret number three and opened a riveted lap seam of the four-inch thick turret roof.

 

The USS Tennessee was a very lucky ship, in contrast to many of the other ships: Five men killed and thirty-seven to eighty injured (depending on how they were counted).

 

On Thursday, to get out of the mundane work, I scouted around the ship for something more interesting. I found some guys working on a motor-whale boat so I pitched in and helped in removing the engine. This work I enjoyed. However, I was soon discovered and was put on a work detail removing the sand from the forward mooring quay. The quay was to be blown apart so the Tennessee could be extricated from her position; she was hemmed in by the USS West Virginia. In the afternoon, I was put on a work party to string oil hoses from our ship across the USS West Virginia to oil barges alongside. This was to lighten our ship in preparation for moving. The next day, after my morning watch, I was to help take the oil hoses apart. When I loosened bolts on the first oil hose flange connection, I got a messy bath of oil and salt water. We had to stow the hoses vertically inside the aft cage mast. These hoses are no garden-variety lightweights. Each section was about twelve feet long, perhaps eight inches in diameter and had flanged ends that require six bolts and nuts to assemble. Each hose section required five or six men to carry. All the time I was working on the water-level main deck of the USS West Virginia, I didn't know there were sailors trapped below in Trunk A-111, marking the days until 27 December when they perished. They were found one year later when the ship was raised and placed in dry-dock. A dive party had been flown to Pearl Harbor soon after 7 December to sound the sides of the sunken ships to listen for any signs of life. Unfortunately, the starboard side of the USS West Virginia was pressed against the USS Tennessee preventing any divers sounding where those sailors were trapped.

 

In the afternoon, I was sent with a work party to the USS Maryland to join in a hundred-man-rope-tow to hoist, by pulley and davit over a hatch, many loads of soggy toilet paper from a forward storeroom in the bottom of the ship that had been flooded.       

 

By Saturday, I was getting smarter about avoiding mundane busy work between my regular watches, by staying lost. I happened to be topside when a destroyer dropped a depth charge on a supposed two-man Jap submarine just north of Ford Island in the main channel. The resulting geyser of gunk and black harbor bottom that shot up one-hundred-fifty feet or so into the air was spectacular. A mini-sub wouldn't have had a chance….

 

When the USS Tennessee was drydocked for an overhaul in September 1942, Tom was transferred to submarine duty in New London, Conn. After earning his dolphins, he was assigned to the USS O-4, a World War I submarine, and from April 1943 to June 1944 he helped train future submariners. He was then accepted into the V-12 officer training program, and he began his studies at the University of Washington. After he was honorably discharged from the Navy in September 1946, Tom returned to the UW on the GI Bill and earned his degree in mechanical engineering in 1948. He immediately went to work for Boeing as a draftsman.

 

In 1950 he began working at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in the design division. For 16 years, he designed heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems for new construction and overhauls. In 1966 he moved to Naval Torpedo Station-Keyport, where for the next 11 years he served as lead test engineer for the Mark 45 torpedo. Tom retired in July 1977, the month he turned 55.

 

Tom began playing the violin at age 8, and after retirement taught he himself to play the viola. Throughout his career and his retirement, he played violin and viola is various symphony orchestras. His last concert was in February of this year. Tom was proud that the violin he played all those years had also survived the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.

 

Tom and Lesa returned to Pearl Harbor each year for the December 7 commemoration. Since 2011, they participated in the official annual Pearl Harbor Parade. This past December, Tom was the Grand Marshal of the Parade. He was recognized as being the only Survivor who had been in every parade since the parades began in 2011 — an achievement in which he took great pride.

 

Tom was one of just four known Pearl Harbor Survivors in Washington state. Now they may be only three.

The National Pearl Harbor Memorial Parade is an official event of the WWII 80th Anniversary commemoration.

Produced by Historic Programs in association with Sound Education Programs

800-626-8590