EDITOR’S NOTE: Historian Joe L. Todd interviewed Robert Elliot in Wilmington, N.C. May 11, 1989 at the reunion of the USS Oklahoma.


Robert Elliot was born in Seattle Wash. on Oct. 4 1913.


TODD: Why did you join the Navy?


ELLIOT: I went down to the CCC Camp and they had just sent out a bunch of men out and told me they wouldn’t be sending any more for a while. I thought, well the Depression is on and I had to do something, the old man is going to break my dinner plate soon so I walked down to the Naval Recruiting Station and there I was. My brother-in-law had been in the Navy and I saw a lot of the Navy growing up in Seattle.


T: When did you join the Navy?


E: August 17, 1934.


T: Where did you go for boot camp?


E: San Diego.


T: Tell me about boot camp.


E: Those petty officers scared the hell out of you. We had a chief in our company that had spent quite a bit of time in China and every Friday we had to march in review. They rated each company on their performance. We would louse up and he would get so mad at us. He said, “I’ve never seen such a f—k up in my life. I’m going to take you back to the south and I’m going with you”. He would lapse into that Brooklyn accent and get really mad. But he was really good. It was a feather in the chief’s hat if his company got the honors for the week, but we never did get it.


T: Where did you go after boot camp?


E: I went aboard the Oklahoma.


T: Did you request the Oklahoma?


E: I was just assigned to her.


T: When you first saw the Oklahoma, what did you think?


E: I don’t know what I really thought. It was in the middle of the night down at Long Beach. I was put on a destroyer and taken down there then put on a motor launch and taken to the Oklahoma.


T: To which division were you assigned?


E: I went to first division, a deck division.


T: What did you do in the first division?


E: Scrub decks and polish bright work. We holystoned the deck every Friday.


T: How do you holy stone the deck?


E: They had a brick that had a hole in the center and a handle would fit in that hole and you went back and forth and worked your way across the deck. The leading seaman would be out there sprinkling sand and water on the deck. Later on I was transferred to E Division.


T: What is E Division?


E: Electrical. I spent about three months in the deck force then applied for engineering. We were called down and told they needed so many men in each division and I was sent to E Division. T: What did you do in E Division?


E: The first thing they did to me was make me compartment cleaner. I took care pf the berthing compartment and cleaned it every day. We had ventilation patrol where we checked all the deck motors to make sure they were working. I cleaned the compartment in the day and patrolled at night. I did that for three months then they put me to mess cooking. The only good thing about mess cooking, I didn’t have to stand watches. I had to set up the mess tables and go get the food from the galley in tureens. We washed the dishes and put them in racks. The cups had a rack, the bowl had a rack and the plates had a rack. We then took the racks down to the scullery and run them through a dishwashing machine to sterilize the dishes. I did that for three months and after that I thought what it would be like to be an electrician. I went to the workshop and they said they going through the whole ship and paint the berthing spaces. Whitey Phelps was a first class painter. People reported to him from every division and were given a brush and a bucket of white paint and went through every berthing are and painted them. I did that for about three months. After I got off the painting detail then I did learn a few things what an electrician does. The man I was assigned to was a third class electrician mate named Oliver. He was quite a rounder but he showed me the engine rooms and the different things. On the side of the engines we had site lights and the oil would drip down through the pipes and go to the different parts of the engines. We had the steam reciprocating. My job was to insure all those lights were working. We had the smoke light on the engines.


T: What is a smoke light?


E: When the boiler is operating, it looks like a periscope and it shows the smoke going through the stack and you could tell if you were burning clean or dirty. There was a light at the very back of the boiler and that was the smoke light. When that light goes out, you had to get up there and replace it. When the ship was operating, it wasn’t too bad because there was air pressure in there and was cool. If the ship was not operating it was hotter than heck in there.


T: How fast was the Oklahoma?


E: We could make seventeen knots. I remember when the dirigible Macon went down. We were steaming up toward San Francisco and for a while we were leading the fleet because of the engines we had. The Oklahoma could really step out. We had four triple expansion engines and were tremendously big outfits. The low pressure cylinder was six feet one inch in diameter and had a stroke of six or eight feet. I think they were the largest triple expansion engines that ever been built. That’s where the steam expands three times.


T: Tell me about the Midshipman’s Cruise of 1936.


E: Every year they would take the midshipmen from Annapolis and put them on ships for hands on training. We went to England and it was during the Depression and the Thomas Cook Tour Company had some reasonable tours in England. We then went to Sweden and were notified to take the midshipmen off and put them on the Arkansas and Wyoming and proceed to France. Some of those midshipmen were ready to go to Spain and see some action. The Spanish Civil War was going on and we were to rescue American fleeing the civil war. We went to the Bay of Biscay, Bilboa, Santander and Vigo. I think we were anchored at Cadiz one night and a warship came up outside the harbor. We trained out light on them and they were not friendly with the people on shore and we were right in the middle of them. It was decided to get under way and that we wouldn’t challenge anyone again if we were in port.


T: What did you do with the refugees?


E: They were put in the warrant officer quarters. At Bilboa we had big swells and we brought the Americans on board in a canvas bag instead of letting them us the gangplank.


T: How were the Americans brought to the Oklahoma?


E: In motor launches. If the water was smooth they could the gangplank but if it was rough we used the canvas bag. We took the people to France then returned to the states. Hitler had his air force there helping Franco.


T: How long were you on the Oklahoma? E: Right at three years.


T: What made the Oklahoma special?


E: There was just something special about the Oklahoma. No matter what ship you went to, they were not like the Oklahoma. She was a real home. Everyone I have ever talked to that served on the Oklahoma said it was a real home. There was something special about the Oklahoma that no other ship in the fleet had.


T: When you heard Pearl Harbor had been attacked and the Oklahoma had been sunk, what did you think?


E: I couldn’t believe it. I was in New York City putting the North Carolina in commission. I had been ashore and had a room at the YMCA. I got up the next day about noon and had tickets for Radio City. We went in for the show and the usher seated us and he said, “There is nothing too good for the Navy”. I wondered what he meant. The show didn’t go on but there were some actors. We decided to go to Times Square to see what was going on and there was a message in lights that travels around the building and it said that Pearl Harbor had been attacked and servicemen to report back. I just couldn’t believe it.


T: I think we have a good interview.


E: You are welcome.