Skip to comments.Dec. 7 memories never fade.
Posted on 12/07/2003 6:50:14 AM PST by SandRat
Photos by David Sanders / Staff
Rex Bridgemon, with a 1942 photo of himself. When he made topside on Dec. 7, 1941, "all I could see was sinking and burning ships."
Bridgemon holds a commemorative coin that Congress created for Pearl Harbor survivors.
By Bonnie Henry
He was eating a bowl of Post Toasties when the world changed.
"I was in my storeroom. I had just come out with a bowl of cereal and a glass of milk in my other hand," says Rex Bridgemon, former petty officer second class aboard the light cruiser USS Helena.
The time: 7:55 a.m. The day: Dec. 7, 1941. The place: Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
First came the announcement over the loudspeaker: "All personnel, man your battle stations. This is not a drill."
Next came the explosion.
A Japanese-launched torpedo hit the forward engine room, flooding the room and killing all its men.
"The whole ship shuddered for a second or two," says Bridgemon. Meanwhile, the force of the blast raced up the stairs, through the hatch, down a hall and up another stairway, killing several sailors.
"I went the other way through the mess hall," says Bridgemon. Even so, the force threw him 30 feet against a bulkhead.
As he headed for his battle station, sailors were coming down the stairs, some with blood running down their legs.
Several of the men had been blown overboard. Others were so badly burned that when rescuers held their arms to guide them to the docks, the charred flesh came off in their hands.
For the next several hours, Bridgemon worked at his battle station, making .50-caliber machine gun belts.
"The Helena was the first ship to start firing its big guns," says Bridgemon, whose ship's aft engine room was still able to supply power.
By 4 that afternoon, he was allowed up on deck, which was littered with empty shells.
"All I could see was sinking and burning ships roiling in the water. There were oil slicks."
Across the way, the USS Arizona was a blackened hulk. "I saw 75 or 100 small boats trying to pick up sailors." The Helena took several of them.
That evening everyone went topside to eat. "We all lined up, including the officers, who fell in line with the enlisted men."
After a patch job, the Helena went back to the States for repair. "Everyone had 30 days, so I went back to Illinois," says Bridgemon, who married his former teen-age sweetheart, Marie.
With repairs done, the Helena steamed back to the South Pacific, where she fought several night battles off Guadalcanal.
"In one attack, they lost all the ships but the Helena and one other," says Bridgemon.
In early 1943, the Helena went to Sydney, Australia, for an overhaul. By then Bridgemon was back in the States, helping organize a new crew for the destroyer Porterfield.
It was during this time that he heard the Helena had gone down during the Second Battle of Kula Gulf in the Solomon Islands, after sinking three enemy warships.
Some 168 men went down with her out of a crew of 900. The rest were rescued.
But Bridgemon did not have long to grieve.
Before long, the Porterfield was joining the South Pacific theater.
"We traveled all night, and the next morning I looked out and all I could see were carriers, destroyers and battleships. It made me feel good."
In 1944, he was again transferred back to the States, doing auditing work in Texas, where the Navy was building new destroyers. He left the Navy shortly before V-E Day in May of '45.
A Tucsonan since 1997, Bridgemon, along with Marie, has been back to Hawaii only once, for their 45th anniversary in 1987.
While he enjoyed the visit, he could not bring himself to go to the USS Arizona Memorial, he says, his eyes welling with tears.
"As best I can remember, we lost 88 men out of a crew of 900. Every December 7th, I do a lot of thinking."
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