Navy veteran proudly bears scars of Pearl Survivor: Joe Taussig's story is of a man, a ship and what happened to both Dec. 7, 1941.

December 07, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

A few years after shrapnel shattered his leg, Joe Taussig started begging his doctors to just take the thing off. Finally, they gave in. Taussig went back to work, keeping quiet about his missing limb.

"They didn't catch me for 13 years. I was the only one-legged guy the Navy had," said Taussig, 78, eating a bucket of clams at an Annapolis crab shack.

Wearing his USS Nevada sweat shirt, with his aluminum leg tucked beneath him, Taussig tells his story to a stranger. He looks like Ed Asner, sounds like George C. Scott as Patton.

It's the story of Dec. 7, 1941. The story of a man -- the self-described weak link in a century-long chain of Taussig officers -- and a ship, and how Pearl Harbor scarred them both.

It begins with Taussig in the shadow of his father and grandfather, both Naval Academy graduates, both admirals. Taussig's childhood playgrounds were ships, sailors his playmates.

"When I was 8 years old I could blaspheme 20 syllables without taking a breath. By the time I was 11, I was throwing dice. By 13, I was playing cards, learning how to tie knots," he said. "But it was awful because back home, I had to have my admiral's son's manners on."

When Taussig was arrested for dressing a nude statue outside actor Fatty Arbuckle's estate in Long Beach, Calif., Judge George Benson gave him a choice: reform school or the Naval Academy.

His years in Annapolis were rough. Conformity made him chafe. Highlights were the dates with his future wife, Betty.

"I was not a very good midshipman," he said. "I liked girls better than I liked books."

He graduated Feb. 7, 1941, and was assigned to the USS Nevada, a 25-year-old battleship.

A shortage of officers helped him advance quickly. He oversaw the ship's ammunition, then became aide to the executive officer, who roamed the boat with a ball-peen hammer, tapping in search of loose paint. Salty sailors called the 21-year-old Taussig "sonny."

"I had two chief petty officers who'd been on the ship longer than I'd been alive."

The Nevada, commissioned in Boston in 1916, had cruised to all corners of the globe by that time. It was a workhorse, though not heavily armed -- as Taussig would soon learn.

On Dec. 6, 1941, Taussig served his first shift as officer of the deck -- the person temporarily in charge of the ship in place of the commanding officer.

From 8 p.m. to midnight, he walked the deck. He followed the smell of smoke to a locker where paint was stored and found a sailor cooking ham and eggs on a hot plate. The sailor gave Taussig a thick slice of ham and five eggs, and Taussig promised not to reprimand him.

The next morning, Taussig reported again as officer of the deck. It was 7: 45 a.m. Fourteen sailors went ashore. A band began playing "The Star-Spangled Banner," a Sunday morning ritual.

Taussig saw a single plane descend on the ship-crowded harbor. Its bay doors opened and out came a "bird" -- a torpedo.

Taussig's first thought: Oops, some Navy pilot is going to get in trouble for that. Then he saw the rising sun symbol on the wings.

'It was war'

"Then it became kaleidoscopic," he said. "We knew it was real. It was war."

Taussig sprinted up five flights to his battle station above the gun deck. It would be the final sprint of his life.

The Japanese unleashed 183 bombers, fighters and torpedo planes on Pearl Harbor. A Japanese radioman sent the infamous "Tora, tora, tora" message, signaling that the U.S. Navy had indeed been taken by surprise.

Taussig helped aim the Nevada's guns at diving enemy planes. But he -- and the Navy -- would later realize they didn't have nearly enough guns to fend off such an attack.

'Funny place for a leg'

A piece of metal, or maybe a bullet, crashed through Taussig's thigh, demolishing the bone. Without the bone, the leg muscles pulled his leg grotesquely upward. "I looked down and saw my left leg under my armpit, which is a funny place for a leg to be," he recalled.

With bombs and torpedoes exploding all around, Taussig lay on the deck in his blood, barking orders into the radio. A torpedo blew a bus-sized hole in the Nevada's bow. Fuel and paint fires spread across the deck as water flooded through the punctured hull.

The Nevada was able to fire up its engines and begin steaming across the harbor -- the only ship to leave its moorings that day. It tried to leave the harbor, but the crew finally had to beach the ship.

The ship's pharmacist put Taussig in a stretcher, tied ropes to it, and lowered Taussig to the main deck, then over the side into a motorboat. Ashore, a taxi drove him to the hospital. (Years later, Taussig tried unsuccessfully to find the driver -- to apologize for the blood).

When the smoke cleared, 2,408 were dead, nearly half of them aboard the USS Arizona. Another 1,178 were injured, and some of them carry scars into their 70s and 80s.

Each year, a reunion

Each year, the Nevada crew members hold a reunion, and each year the names of 30 or so alumni are read aloud -- those who died the previous year.

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