By Margaret Downing

Al and Verle Walker, early 1940s.

The late Albert “Al” Walker of Machesney Park recalled several years ago  a very important day in his life – when he met his future wife Verle Buie. “We were both picking cotton in a Missouri cotton patch in 1940,” he recalled recently. He was 21 and she was 22 when they met, fell in love and married. The couple went on to have two sons; Dennis and Danny. At the time, they had six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Walker joined the Navy in 1941 and received training at the Great Lakes Naval Center.

“First I tried the Marines but they told me I was too light to be a Marine,” he explained. “So, next I went to the Navy, and they took me.” Walker believes he made the right choice and said, “In the Navy there are no mud holes and no cold chow. In the Navy we either had everything or we were swimming.”

Walker was assigned to the USS St. Louis (CL-49), a light cruiser, which was part of a task force that took President Roosevelt to the Philippines in the fall of 1941.

“This was about 30 days before the attack on Pearl Harbor,” he explained. “I remember on our return that we were watching a movie topside when our captain gave the order to ‘throw away the dummy ammo and put in live ammo.’ I think the higher ups knew something was coming.”

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Walker recalls vividly “sitting on a bunk shining my shoes and getting ready to attend a church service onboard ship. I walked topside and General Alarm sounded. I saw planes firing and bullets hitting the quarterdeck in front of me. I immediately went to my station to man a 50-caliber machine gun.”

Another Machesney Park resident, the late LaVerne Lundstrom, was that day aboard the USS Battleship Nevada. Walker noted, “A while later, about 200 yards across from us I saw the Nevada run up on the beach after it was hit by a torpedo. They did that so as not to block the channel. About 60 feet of its bow was gone.”

Another memory that has stuck in Walker’s mind all these years was of seeing an overweight man on one of the docks using his stomach to hold a machine gun while he fired at the Japanese planes passing overhead. “I don’t know if he was from one of the ships or what,” Walker said.

Information provided by Walker tells the story of his ship that day:

The St. Louis “was the first major ship to get up steam and clear the channel. There were no casualties from a plane strafing run, two torpedoes fired to intercept the St. Louis by a ‘Midget’ sub exploded on the coral reef surrounding the entrance to the channel, probably an attempt to block the channel and bottle up what remained of our fleet. There was a torpedo straddle off the coast of Oahu on the ship’s way out to clear sea.”

A report submitted on December 10, 1941 by the commanding officer of the St. Louis stated, “As soon as the air raid commenced on December 7, the ship went to General Quarters and opened fire with the 1.1 and .50 calibre machine gun batteries and at the same time commenced clearing away the interferences in the 5-inch mounts caused by yard work then in progress.

“At the same time all preparations for getting underway were made and steam raised in the six boilers. Two boilers were out of commission due to routine cleaning. These boilers were put back in commission and were on the line at 0400 December 8. The 5-inch battery was soon in operating commission and enemy planes were taken under fire.

“The ship got underway at 0931 with boiler power for twenty-nine knots and stood out of the south channel. When just inside entrance buoy No. 1, two torpedoes were fired at this ship from a distance of approximately 2,000 yards on the starboard beam. The torpedoes, although running shallow, struck the shoal inside buoy No. 1 and exploded, no damage to this vessel resulting. An object near the origin of the torpedo tracks was taken under fire by the 5-inch battery but no hits were observed. This object was not positively identified as a submarine periscope.

“The vessel cleared the channel at twenty-five knots and zig-zagged on a southerly course with intention of locating and attacking the enemy carrier which was reported as being to the south of Pearl Harbor. After clearing the harbor entrance buoys the Montgomery was ordered to act as a screen and later the Phelps also. While standing to the southern this vessel formed an attack group with the destroyers Phelps, Blue, Lamson, and Montgomery. Shortly after, the Montgomery was detached and it signaled that it had been ordered to make a sweep for magnetic mines in the channel. The St. Louis, Phelps, Blue and Lamson remained in company until they joined Commander Destroyers, Battle Force at 1321.”

The report goes on to say, “At 1321 this vessel (the St. Louis) and its accompanying destroyers joined Commander Destroyers, Battle Force in the Detroit and operated thereafter until entrance in Pearl Harbor as a unit of Task Force under his command…This vessel was hit by machine gun bullets or shell fragments, but the exact number has not yet been determined. However, no appreciable damage was sustained.”

“At the time of the raid this vessel’s four VGS planes were shore-based at the Naval Air Station, Ford Island, and their condition is not known at this time…The commanding officer wishes particularly to commend the prompt and willing action of the Commanding Officers of the Montgomery, Phelps, Blue, and Lamson in joining this vessel to form an attack group.”

Additionally, “The Commanding Officer has nothing but the highest praise for the performance of duty of all officers and men attached to this vessel. When General Quarters was sounded during the raid all hands proceeded promptly and without confusion to their battle stations and performed to the entire satisfaction of the Commanding Officer.”

Further information on what followed for the St. Louis during the war was provided in a write-up by Jack Jones, a crew member. Jones stated, “A torpedo hit the bow in the second battle of Kula Gulf in 1942 that destroyed her entire bow but there were no casualties — not until Valentine’s Day 1944 when a 500-pound bomb hit amidships. Twenty-three lives were lost and two compartments damaged. The ship took a direct hit from a Kamikaze on its starboard fantail; 16 men were killed in action and 35 were wounded. The crew saw 61 days of combat operations at Okinawa where 26,000 rounds of major ammunition was expended, (underwent) one torpedo straddle and two missed single torpedo shots. There were seven direct Kamikaze attacks on the ship, no hits, three planes shot down and two assists.”

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