Even the open sea had adopted the Sunday morning calm of the towns that outlined the clover-leaf shaped harbor. The glow from the lights of Saturday night had dimmed several hours before. Now the only lights were those needed by the people who were going to church and those who were working the Sunday shifts.
On board the USS Ward an easiness had replaced the uncertainty of the night, the first night of the Ward’s task, patrolling the mouth of the harbor…the first night under the new captain..the first night the young crew felt they were part of the actual Navy.
When he felt comfortable with how it went that day, Lt. William Outerbridge had decided it was time for him to go to bed. He was tired. The hectic last couple of days had had drained him. Arriving on board of the Ward on the 5th, taking command, and setting out to sea duty on the 6th.
Outerbridge had his first command of a ship…albeit it he only had been in the Navy a scant fourteen years. He went to bed that first night, content and confident that he was capable of his new appointment. His ship handled well in this it’s first day of patrol duty…albeit it was old. His crew proved they were competent and more than willing…albeit, they were young in both years and experience.
The destroyer USS Ward had been built in just 17 days in the early days of WWI. She saw action in both the Pacific and Atlantic. At the end of the war, she was put in dry-dock until she was recommissioned and refurbished in January of 41, and then sent to the Pacific to be commanded by Outerbridge and crewed by the 47th Division of the Naval Reserve, called to active duty in January of 41.
Almost all of the crew were from St. Paul, Minnesota, the home of the 47th Reserves. St. Paul, an unlikely home for a naval reserve is the furthest city from any ocean in the U.S.. The men’s training had been mostly in the classroom, a little on the Mississippi River, and two weeks each summer on the Great Lakes. It wasn’t until they were activated that they experienced the taste of salt water.
They were raw and eager to learn. They were also young. Children of the Depression. Aged and steeled in the hollow life of the economic catastrophe. Russell Reetz, for instance, 24, tried to find decent work while in high school and after graduation; but each job he managed to find, crumbled shortly after. Some like Richard Thill were still in high school when they were activated.
They joined the reserves because it gave them a little money and a social club. A short meeting once a week followed by a few beers and penny-ante poker. Even the yearly two- week summer camp was an enjoyable respite from their daily lives. As the world war grew and the drums calling for the U.S. entry grew louder the reservists took their training with a much more serious attitude; but still the thought of protecting the Great Lakes seemed a better option than being sent overseas. Hence the call-up and the realization they were in the Navy proper, woke them out of their dream of easy sailing.
Still in all, it was a regular paycheck and a huge break from the breadlines of the Depression. Their life so far had been one of hard times and served them well in their new lives. They attacked the work with the zeal of one unwrapping a much wanted present. Having a job makes a person walk tall.
Sunday morning- 12/7/1941: At 0342 A.M. the USS Condor, in the open sea outside Pearl, experienced a wake that was deemed by the ship’s deck officer to be caused by a small periscope, possibly that of a mini-sub that Japan was known to use. The Ward, which was the closest to the harbor mouth, was notified.
Lt. Outerbridge called General Quarters and pinging began hoping to find the sub, but to no avail.
At 0458 A.M. the harbor’s torpedo safety net was opened to allow a number of small ships entrance, among them the SS Antares, which was towing a target into port. At 0630 at PBY plane spotted the submarine following the Antares and notified the Ward.
At 0635 AM., a lookout on the Ward spotted the periscope. Lt. Outerbridge, covered in a kimono robe, gave orders to attack. Since the vessel had not requested entrance to the harbor, Outerbridge’s order was justified by International Law. When the Ward got within range, the ship’s #1gun fired a shot…the First Shot of the USA in WWII. It missed high.
At once the men on #3 gun fired a second shot, lower and aft of the periscope. There was an eruption of water, black smoke, and the periscope laid over as it sank into the depths.
Outerbridge ordered the Ward to go to the spot and four depth charges were dropped to make certain.
Not only had these citizen sailors fired the First Shot, they also scored the First Victory in the War
These acts of war was radioed at once to both the Naval HQ of Pearl, under the command of Admiral Husband Kimmel, and the Military HQ of Pearl, under the command of Lt. General Walter Scott.
SNAFU! Busy lines, missed connections, the ongoing ‘feud’ between Kimmel and Scott, and the fact Kimmel wanted better confirmation such an incident did occur, all combined to nothing being done until it was too late.
At 0755 A.M., an hour and twenty minutes after the Ward entered the US into WWII, Kimmel’s confirmation was answered in spades. The gates of Hell opened in the form of 383 Japanese bombers and fighters in two waves of destruction.
Kimmel had believed that such an attack would be on Wake Island not Pearl and had taken no extra precautions to protect Pearl. The stubbornness of General Short in demanding that all the ships in the harbor be packed together in one section, made it much easier to attack them.
Within two hours, 18 ships were sunk or damaged…2402 US sailors, soldiers, and marines were killed…another 1247 hospitalized. As well as a large number of civilians killled or wounded.
The Day that Lives in Infamy. The next day the U.S. made it’s long awaited entrance into WWII a formality.
Three days after the attack, U.S. ships were allowed to enter the harbor. The Ward was the first…the first to see the carnage, the horror, experience the smell of death. And it all stuck with the men of the Ward for the rest of their lives.
Lt. Outerbridge was presented with the Navy Cross for his actions taken prior to and during the attack. The men of the Ward were given a pat on the back for their actions. While they were given credit for firing the First Shot, there was a reluctance from the War Department Brass to accept the ‘story’ they sunk the Japanese min-sub. After all these men were young reservists who ‘probably had a vivid and wishful imagination… something to tell the girls back home’.
Ten days after the attack, both Admiral Kimmel and General Short were relieved of command, demoted, and fast-tracked on their way out altogether. Both barely avoiding court martial.
The Ward was re-outfitted into a ‘fast’ destroyer with better armament and sent for duty in the Pacific where it engaged in fighting and transporting. In mid 1943 the men of the Ward were replaced as was Lt. Outerbridge. Most of the civilian sailors were sent states side to a much safer way of life. Outerbridge was assigned to a desk in D.C. until he was given command of the destroyer O’Brien just prior to D-Day. His first assignment, station the ship off the coast of Normandy and shell the German defenses. His next, do the same at Cherbourgh.
From ETO,the O’Brien was sent to the Pacific. Both the O’Brien and the Ward were engaged in the battle of Leyte Gulf. December 7, 1944, exactly 3 years to the day of the Ward’s great achievement at Pearl Harbor, she came under attack by Japanese kamikazes. One struck the Ward mid-ship. The ‘new’ men of the Ward abandoned ship and were all picked up by Outerbridge’s O’Brien.
After rescuing the crew of the Ward, Outerbridge was ordered to open fire on the Ward and sink her. In 1957 William Outerbridge retired as a much decorated Rear Admiral. In 2017, the remains of the Ward were found.
(A Little Aside)…In January of 43, while given shore leave from the Ward, Russell Reetz stood in my grandfolks’ living room and married my Aunt Loretta. I was a shy five year old who was fascinated by this tall stranger dressed in a navy outfit. Little did I realize at the time just how good of friends we would become.
Those civilian sailors, those men of the Ward, were discharged in the fall of 1945. All with a chest full of medals. For the most part they went home to St. Paul where they took advantage of the GI Bill, got training for good jobs, got GI loans for houses, and settled into everyday postwar living. One thing though held them together, the USS Ward on 12/7/41. They formed a brotherhood and called it the First Shot Naval Vets.
Damn if their feat of sinking that submarine was not officially recognized, they knew the truth and told the story to whoever wanted to hear it, schools, organizations, the media. In 1958, the group managed to get the #1 gun from the Ward and have it set on the State Capitol Grounds as a monument to commemorate the reservists from St. Paul firing the First Shot in WWII.
In 2000 a feeble attempt to find the mini-sub was undertaken for a National Geographic documentary emceed by Tom Brokaw. My uncle, Russell Reetz and Will Lehner, a shipmate on the Ward, were included in the search, along with Japanese veterans of the min-sub’s mother-ship. During the search Russ was heard loud and clear shouting that they were looking in the wrong location. They were a good 5 miles off. Nobody listened and the search was finally called off.
Uncle Russ figured they had no intention of actually finding the sub seeing as how the two Japanese vets would be greatly embarrassed.
In 2002, a probe by the University of Hawaii proved without a doubt the Ward had indeed sunk that min-sub as they said. They found the sub and there with the hole in it’s side just as the men of the Ward said, in the location where the men wanted the search to occur. It took 61 years but the men of the Ward got the credit they deserved.
Russell Reetz had his daughter, Cindy, write a letter to the admiral that was vocally opposed to the thought that a shell from the Ward could have penetrated the sub enough to sink it. The admiral sent back a letter with a left-handed apology, stating he was glad to see ‘miracles can happen’.
Uncle Russ died in November of 2004. He contracted pneumonia while sitting in the light rain in Washington D.C. at the dedication of the WWII Monument. He is buried along with a number of his fellow Ward shipmates in Fort Snelling Veterans’ Cemetery.
With the death a few months ago of Dick Thill, the baby of the group, all those civilian sailors, those young reservists, these Men of the USS Ward have left us…having earned a special place in our history.
We thank them and salute them, on this anniversary of Pearl Harbor… along with all the men of Pearl Harbor Attack, and the entire “Greatest Generation’.
AND THAT IS A WRAP FOR TODAY