Enlistment and Boot Camp

Assignment: USS Maryland

First Wave, December 7, 1941

Second Wave, Pearl Harbor

Pacific Combat Operations

Reflections

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In 1940, when Firman Balza was 17 years old, there was talk of mobilizing the military. He joined Navy Reserves in Green Bay, Wisconsin in October of that year. His unit was mobilized, and on standby to ship out with 24 hours’ notice; but after four months of waiting, there had been no word. Balza and a buddy decided to join the regs. At the end of January they traveled to Chicago, where Balza was accepted, but his buddy was sent back home because of a heart murmur. Balza began his six-year career in the Navy that day, and said it was the most lonesome day of his life – leaving for boot camp among complete strangers. After his initial training in Great Lakes, he had boot leave to visit his family, then was shipped off to the west coast.

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Firman Balza was sent to the west coast, and on Easter Sunday, 13 April 1941, he went aboard the USS Maryland which was being refitted in dry dock. [Annotator’s Note: the USS Maryland (BB-46), also known as ‘Old Mary’ or ‘Fighting Mary’, was a Colorado-class battleship.] When Balza first saw the vessel, he wondered how so much iron could float. The Maryland was 624 feet long and 100 feet wide, and torn up, but by July it was ship-shape and sailed out of San Pedro Harbor. The sailors knew the United States was already having some troubles in the east, because the president had placed an embargo on oil to Japan, but there were no preparations in place for any kind of attack. Balza said that in Hawaii there was instruction on tactics and weapons, and practice, but he was having a ball. It so happened that in early December the Navy was undergoing its Annual Military Inspection, and all the brass was there to see what the ships were doing. Balza said the Japs knew about this habitual event, and planned accordingly. On the night of December 6th, many of the officers and enlisted went on what was called Cinderella liberty, which would be over at midnight. Balza was aboard ship: December 7th was his duty day.

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Shortly before colors (800 hours) on 7 December 1941, Firman Balza was standing on the starboard gallery deck, talking to fellow sailors, near gun number three, a 5”, 51 caliber weapon on the broadside battery. Balza’s job was keeping that gun clean and operational. He was looking out over Ford Island when a dive bomber bore down over the hanger on the south end and let go a bomb. There was a great ball of fire and a great puff of smoke, and then all hell broke loose. Balza said Japanese planes came from every direction. And, he said, they hammered us. There were a few rounds of ammunition in the ready boxes, but the ready boxes were all locked up and the guns didn’t have their firing locks on them. It took a while before the Maryland could engage, but they were able to get the guns operational during the first wave. Balza’s gun was for surface warfare and useless under the circumstances, so he ran up to the boat deck and helped handle ammo for the port side anti-aircraft gun number four. The Oklahoma was tied up next to the Maryland, and someone said that the Oaky was listing. [Annotator’s Note: the USS Oklahoma (BB-37) was a Nevada-class battleship.] Balza went forward to get ammunition that was coming up from the magazine, and in the short time it took him to return, the Oklahoma had disappeared. It had been hit by five to seven Japanese torpedoes, buckled up and rolled over. When Balza looked over the side, all he could see was her starboard bilge. He continued handling ammunition throughout the first wave, and when it was over, helped clean up the empties and prepare for another attack. There was a lull of about twenty minutes.

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Firman Balza lost track of time until mid-afternoon. He heard that his division officer, Mr. Crow, had been killed by shrapnel in the four-top. Seeing his corpse made Balza sick to his stomach and couldn’t eat for three days. Balza remembered that he had intentions of going over to the Oklahoma that Sunday morning, because there was a Catholic priest aboard, and he wanted to attend mass, but he didn’t get there. There were several others who were able to attend: some of them made it out of the Oklahoma’s wreckage; some didn’t, including the portly little priest – who couldn’t fit through the porthole, but helped many other sailors to get out. The Maryland took shrapnel from a bomb that exploded above the folksil. [Annotator’s Note: the fo’c’s’le – short for forecastle – is the section of the upper bow deck of a ship forward of the foremast.] Another bomb took out its power and knocked out an air compressor. When it was over, he asked a kid in his gun compartment, “Now, what?” He said he recognized that it was the first day of the war, and there would be a lot more. Looking at the carnage, with the fires and damage still going on, he could hardly believe what had happened in such a short period of time. Balza was angry, and although he had never met a Japanese person, he wanted to go out and get revenge.

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Firman Balza said the Japanese lost the war that first day, but it took the U.S. three-and-a-half years to prove it to them. He claims the Japanese failed to destroy essential assets in their first attack: the ammunition and fuel dumps, the submarines, the carriers, and the navy yard. Balza served on the Maryland for three years. She went through the skirmishes in Midway, Guadalcanal and Tarawa, the troop drops in the Aleutians, and patrols in the Fiji Islands without being hit. Balza observed that when the main battery was being fired, there was pandemonium on the ship; scenes beyond anyone’s imagination. The physical requirements, such as taking the recoil on the big guns, was really rough, and combat would go on for hours. He got off the Maryland in 1944.

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Firman Balza was transferred on 7 April 1944, and watched the Maryland sail away on 20 April 1944. The ship went to Saipan, where it took a devastating hit on its bow, had to go to Pearl Harbor to be rebuilt, then went back to battle and suffered Kamikaze attacks at Leyte Gulf and Okinawa. Balza was in the Marshall Islands, unscathed, when the war ended. His most vivid memory is how the United States decided to beat the Japanese, and everybody got involved in the war. It hasn’t happened since then. We knew how to make war, but not how to make peace, and haven’t figured it out yet.

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