Ensign John England was four days shy of his twenty-first birthday when the sun rose over his ship, USS OKLAHOMA (BB-37), and the rest of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941. The idea of an attack was probably the furthest thing from his mind that lovely morning: his wife was due to visit in just a few days. She would be bringing along their three-week-old daughter, Victoria Louise, whom England had not yet seen. So that he might have more time with his girls when they arrived, England had volunteered for an extra shift in the radio room. He was there when the Japanese attack began. OKLAHOMA never had a chance: she was struck by three torpedoes in quick succession, then two more hit home as she began to capsize. England escaped topside, but then ducked back into the quickly tilting vessel to assist several shipmates in the radio room who had not followed him to safety initially. He did this three times, pulling a man to safety on each occasion. He did not return from his fourth trip belowdecks. England was one of 20 officers and nearly 400 enlisted men who lost their lives aboard OKLAHOMA that morning.
On 26 September 1943, England’s mother smashed the traditional bottle of champagne across the bow of USS ENGLAND (DE-635) when she was launched in San Francisco. The ship was commissioned less than three months later. In May of 1944, ENGLAND made history by sinking six Japanese submarines in less than two weeks.
18 May: On 13 May, military intelligence decoded a message from I-16 detailing a scheduled delivery of rice to hungry Japanese troops. Three ships were sent to intercept the boat, but it was ENGLAND who found it. She attacked with her Hedgehog, a diabolical weapon that hurled mortar bombs into the sea and had proved successful at destroying submarines. The first four volleys failed to sink I-16, but the fifth produced an underwater explosion so powerful that ENGLAND’s stern leapt into the air and men tumbled to the deck. A giant oil slick spotted the following day confirmed this first kill.
22 May: A decoded message, sent on 20 May, indicated that seven Japanese submarines had been detailed to cover a sea lane that the U.S. had used twice in the past. Another destroyer picked up the trail of RO-106 early in the morning on 22 May, but scored no hits with her Hedgehog. ENGLAND picked up the sub again less than an hour later and sent it to the bottom after two volleys from her Hedgehog.
23 May: The third kill took a while. A destroyer picked up RO-104 on radar and launched four unsuccessful volleys from her Hedgehog. A second destroyer missed with five more. ENGLAND’s first volley also missed, but her second was dead on. Within hours, a large oil slick appeared on the surface.
24 May: ENGLAND made sonar contact with RO-116 at 0150. Her very first Hedgehog volley yielded several explosions and an oil slick.
26 May: Late in the evening, ENGLAND picked up RO-108. Her aim was definitely improving: this fifth kill went down like the fourth, with just a single volley. An oil slick was visible when the sun rose the following morning.
31 May: Another destroyer detected RO-105 early in the morning. Her depth charges missed. Two other destroyers joined in; altogether, the three ships launched 16 volleys from their Hedgehogs over the next 25 hours. Nothing. The sub was spotted when she came up for air and this time four separate destroyers went after it with no success. “Oh, hell,” the division commander, admitting defeat, groused. “Go ahead, ENGLAND.” So ENGLAND showed them all how it was done, sending RO-105 to the bottom with a single volley from her Hedgehog. Oil and debris soon bubbled to the surface. Fortunately for all the jealous Sailors aboard the other destroyers, this was ENGLAND’s last kill.
For this record, unmatched by any other ship, ENGLAND’s crew was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.