Navy veteran reflects on Pearl Harbor, beyond
Friday, November 10, 2006
By DEAN BAKER, Columbian Staff Writer
BATTLE GROUND, WA — The tall, trim, gray-haired man, who wears a Confederate soldier’s hat and often walks for exercise around this town, is no veteran of the War Between the States.
He is Bruce Patten, 83, a member of the greatest generation being honored this Veterans Day. He served in the U.S. Navy through many major battles of World War II.
His father and all seven of his brothers served in the Navy during the war too, three of them enlisting from their home in Ridgefield; five others from Waterloo, Iowa.
Bruce Patten and five of his brothers were all on the same ship, the battleship USS Nevada, when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. And Bruce also was on the destroyer USS Wren in Tokyo Bay four years later, on Sept. 2, 1945, when the Japanese surrendered on the USS Missouri.
The Patten boys got lots of press at the time. And a new book about the family is just out: “124 Years Before The Navy Mast: The Patten Family.”
Patten just got his copy but said he hasn’t read it yet. He’s too busy listening to talk shows — Rush Limbaugh and Lars Larson are his favorites — studying the Civil War and drawing the cartoons that he pastes on his walls. He’d like to retire to the Philippines, he said, and meet young women there, and he spends time reading about how to do that.
For now, Patten lives in a little apartment in the middle of Battle Ground. He is the second-youngest among his brothers. Only he and Wayne, 81, of Henderson, Nev., are still living.
Bruce Patten worked for many years in the woods and mills of Clark County. “Hell, it was just work. But it was as good as any,” he said.
But he loves to talk about the war, in which he served as a boiler tender from 1941 to 1945.
“Those ships were steam-powered. You are down below decks. You feel and hear the sound and fury, but you don’t see it,” he said. He swiveled in an office chair in his cluttered apartment. Cans of food line his stove. Ancient pinup girls are pasted on the windows. On the wall hang photos of John F. Kennedy and the actor Jeff Daniels in costume for his role in the film “Gettysburg”: Col. Joshua Chamberlain, the Union hero of Little Round Top.
Patten’s first taste of battle came at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
He and five of his brothers were stoking the boilers in the engine room on the battleship USS Nevada, berthed next to the USS Arizona, which was sunk by eight bombs and a torpedo. Explosions rocked the Nevada as the Patten boys got her under way.
“It was hotter than the hammers of hell down there, and it was pushing 8 o’clock, and guys said ‘What was that!’ And then there was a general alarm, and then three guys said ‘We’re under attack, we don’t know who the hell it is!’ ”
They ran to their battle stations and soon saw the Japanese planes skimming across the area. And “Wham! We took a torpedo.”
‘The sky was black’
Under way, the Nevada was an easy target and was taking hits. To avoid sinking and to save the crew members’ lives, the captain ran the Nevada up on a sandbar, saving the Patten boys below.
“First thing we saw when we got on deck was that … Arizona! That mast crocked like that. The sky was black. My brother Marvin was on shore patrol that day and he crawled under a taxicab to survive.”
After the attack, the brothers were immediately reassigned to the aircraft carrier USS Lexington, which was dispatched to the battle of the Coral Sea, where she took many hits and lay dead in the water while boys fought fire and explosions. The order was given to abandon ship, and the ship went up in flames.
“It looked just like it was lit with Christmas lights from stem to stern,” he said.
Bruce was taken aboard the cruiser USS New Orleans. The boys and their dad then got a trip to New Caledonia, then to Tonga, then San Diego, then to Des Moines, along the way raising millions of dollars selling war bonds, posing for photographs, and smiling and giving little speeches.
Later in the war, Bruce made three trips to North Africa, taking part in the Casablanca invasion. He helped transport troops to Bombay and Australia. Finally, he served on the USS Wren, which fought off Okinawa and the Philippines and was present in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, when the Japanese surrendered.
The whole family survived the war without injury, and had their last time together in July 1942. Their father, Lloyd Patten, died of cancer in March 1945.
Twice married and divorced, Bruce has no children.
In recently years, he said he has made several trips to the Philippines to visit girlfriends, and has kept busy writing every day in his journal, walking a lot and reading about the Civil War. His health is good, he said, except for aches and pains. So he’s ready for a new chapter in the story he loves to tell.
“If the world don’t turn upside down, I think I’ll retire there in the Philippines,” he said. “With my retirement money, I think I can live pretty good there in a nice house in a nice neighborhood for $150 a month. Hell’s fire, you can’t beat that. You know, getting my age, you got to make up your mind, just what you are going to do.”
DEAN BAKER writes about military affairs. Reach him at 360-759-8009 or email@example.com.