By JASON COX
Of the Keizertimes
“Ghost returns with bride.”
That was the headline on the Rapid City Journal not long after U.S. Navy veteran Virgil Taylor brought his new wife to his boyhood home in South Dakota.
It’s the kind of detail that sticks with him even 70 years after everyone in his hometown thought he’d perished at Pearl Harbor. Taylor, now 95, wasn’t going away that easy.
He thought he had things almost figured out on December 7, 1941. Taylor had joined the Navy in 1938 looking to save up enough money to go to accounting school and get out of the Deadwood gold mines.
Three and a half years of service went by fairly uneventfully, even as they constantly trained for war. He’d just been promoted to machinist’s first mate, and was writing his mother a letter while aboard the battleship USS California.
“I never really thought about war – all I wanted was to get my money and get out,” he said. He was six months away from that goal when all hell broke loose.
The order came to man battle stations, but Taylor thought it was just another drill. Then a friend who had earlier been tempting Taylor to go ashore and have some fun (Taylor declined the invitation because he didn’t want to spend the money) hurried white-faced down a ladder.
“The Japs are after us,” the man told Taylor.
From his station in the engine room, well below the deck, it was hard to tell what exactly was happening. He felt a vibration, but assumed something had bumped the ship. As we now know, Japanese war planes were bombing the Navy’s Pacific fleet, an act of aggression that pushed the United States into the deadliest war the world has ever known.
Had he been elsewhere on ship he may not have lived to tell the tale. After torpedoes struck the front and back of the battleship, a bomb hit the deck and ignited ammunition, leaving a cavern about 20 feet from his locker.
“When the bomb hit that just opened everything to the top deck,” he said.
The pounding left the ship unable to move, and the crew were ordered to abandon her. He opened the engine room’s hatch to see sunshine – a stark contrast from the office, machine shop and deck that had been there before – “just opened up like a book,” Taylor said.
Ironically, his life preserver he was wearing had gotten useless from waterlogging, so he tossed it off before he climbed down the captain’s ladder and jumped into the water. Taylor swam to a nearby ferry and got pulled up by a man suffering from his own wounds – a blister that ran from his ankle to his upper thigh.
An oil slick covered the water as the USS Oklahoma lay on her side, and flames shot out from the USS Arizona. He went back aboard the California to help fight fires as a U.S. flag was raised on the fantail.
Later that night he was standing watch with two gunmen operating anti-artillery aircraft. In the confusion and chaos, they fired on what turned out to be a U.S. warplane.
“He was out in the water hollering for help,” Taylor recalled. “We brought him in and took him to a doctor.”
There was nothing the doctor could do for the man, who had been mortally wounded when a bomb aboard the plane exploded.
“That’s when I thought this was going to be one hell of a war,” Taylor said.
He’s still not sure how, but in the aftermath a telegram was sent to his parents back home in South Dakota informing them of his death. About the same time, he and other survivors wired home telling them they were OK. Plans for a funeral service were underway when the second one arrived.
The USS California lost 98 of its 1,800-man crew. Other crews were not so lucky, if you can even use that word. Some 1,117 died from the USS Arizona. Overall 2,335 U.S. Servicemen lost their lives, with another 1,178 wounded.
He would go on to rejoin the USS California, seeing action at Guadalcanal, Leyte Gulf, Okinawa and Saipan.
His next visit to South Dakota earned him a hero’s welcome. He saw himself in the local paper – a hoot in and of itself – and the police chief offered a car and a driver to take him just about anywhere he and his wife wanted to go. (He says they only used it two or three times.)
Wanting some peace and privacy, for their honeymoon he checked in under his brother-in-law’s name at a lodge in Sylvan Lake, a destination in South Dakota’s Black Hills.
“I didn’t want anyone to bug us, but when I came back down they told me I didn’t owe them a thing,” Taylor said.
The six months he had left in the Navy became 17 and a half years – after the war, with a pregnant wife, he figured that was best. He’d go on to teach machinist classes in the service, and later taught in Indiana and eventually in Salem, where he passed on his skills to inmates at the Oregon State Penitentiary.
He now lives at Emerald Pointe Retirement Community in Keizer.
Information from the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs and Mike Allegre was used in this article.