When salvage crews raised the battleship West Virginia six months after the Pearl Harbor attacks, they found the bodies of three sailors huddled in an airtight storeroom — and a calendar on which 16 days had been crossed off in red pencil.
At first, everyone thought it was a piece of loose rigging slapping against the wrecked hull of the USS West Virginia.
To the survivors on land, it was just another noise amid the carnage of Pearl Harbor a day after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack. Like the sound of fireboats squirting water on the USS Arizona. Or the hammers chipping into the overturned hull of the Oklahoma.
But they realized the grim truth the next morning, in the quiet dawn. Someone was still alive, trapped deep in the forward hull of the sunken battleship.
The Marines standing guard covered their ears. There was nothing anyone could do.
When salvage crews raised the West Virginia six months later, they found the bodies of three men huddled in an airtight storeroom: Ronald Endicott, 18; Clifford Olds, 20; and Louis “Buddy” Costin, 21.
But the most haunting discovery was the calendar.
Sixteen days had been crossed off in red pencil. The young sailors had marked their time, not knowing what had happened to their ship or that their country was at war.
For 54 years, their story has been told in hushed tones among the West Virginia’s survivors. It has become a symbol of courage and perseverance for these aging men.
Few people knew the whole truth. The Navy never told the families how long their loved ones had survived. And for those brothers and sisters who eventually found out, the truth was so devastating they kept it a secret. Even from their own parents.
“His days are numbered”
In the days after the attack, Jack Frank Miller often found himself praying on the dock near the sunken West Virginia.
He had met Clifford Olds at boot camp. Both were from small prairie towns in North Dakota. They liked fishing and motorcycles, ships and open seas. Now they were serving together on the same battleship.
They had been drinking beer at a Pearl City tavern, the Monkey Bar, the night before the attack. A woman snapped their picture, with a third sailor. Olds was smiling, toasting his friends, a Camel cigarette dangling from his fingers.
Miller just knew Olds was still alive down there, probably trapped in the airtight fresh-water pump room, waiting to be rescued.
But the ship had taken at least six torpedoes and two bombs, burned for 30 hours, and settled in the mud of the harbor bottom, its main deck covered in oily water.
Cut a hole to get someone out and you’d flood the whole thing. Use a torch and risk an explosion.
Miller knew what that meant for his friend. “His days are numbered,” he thought. “I’m afraid it’s going to be a lingering death.”
He returned to the Monkey Bar and found the woman who took the picture. She gave Miller the negative.
Miller is now 75 and living in Seattle. He still has the photo, a memento of a friend he’ll never see again.
Friends, frozen in time, on the last night of peace.
Trapped sailor from Aberdeen
The Aberdeen Daily World, Ronald Endicott’s hometown newspaper in Grays Harbor County, declared him dead on Dec. 17, 1941.
“Died for U.S.” his obituary read. “Ronald Endicott, young Aberdeen Navy man, was killed in the war in the Pacific. Endicott was the son of Mr. and Mrs. R.B. Endicott of Aberdeen.”
A photo showed a dimpled, baby-faced boy in his sailor suit.
Nothing was said of Pearl Harbor, the West Virginia or the noise that still rang from its hull that same day, thousands of miles away.
No one wanted guard duty that put him within earshot of the West Virginia, especially on quiet nights. They would do anything to trade posts so they wouldn’t have to hear the desperate — almost tireless — cry for help.
“God, I can’t go by that ship anymore,” a buddy told Marine Dick Fiske.
But there was Fiske, a sentry on Ford Island, with a thought he could not shake: “Just can’t believe somebody is still in there.”
He used to stand watch with Cliff Olds. These were just normal guys, Fiske thought. Just like him. They used to gossip about their time in port, drink a beer now and then. Talk about girlfriends back home, worry about the threat of war.
Trade letters — “If I don’t make it, mail this.”
What were those men thinking now?
He was pretty sure he knew. The same things had raced through his mind the day of the attack as he stood in the navigation bridge. Family. His mom and dad. What the future held. God.
And one more thing. Surely they had asked it a thousand times: Does anyone up there hear us?
After months of picking bodies from the West Virginia, sailors removed the remains of three men from storeroom A-111, clad in their blues and jerseys. They were carried away in heavy canvas bags drawn tight at the top.
The clues left in the dry storeroom hinted at a horrifying demise. Flashlight batteries littered the floor. The manhole to a supply of fresh water had been opened. Emergency rations had been eaten.
And the calendar. A foot high, 14 inches long. A red “X” scratched through the dates from Dec. 7 through Dec. 23.
Word spread quickly of its discovery. The survivors couldn’t believe it, especially Fiske, as he watched the bodies brought out. “Now we know how long they were actually there,” he thought.
But families weren’t told
Spurred by the death of his brother, Harlan Costin joined the Navy in October 1942 when he turned 17.
He was assigned to the USS Tuscaloosa in the South Pacific, far from his family in southern Indiana. A friend was serving on the refurbished West Virginia in the same fleet.
He told Harlan the truth about Louis. But Harlan couldn’t bring himself to tell their mother or young sister. All they knew came from a Navy man who had appeared at their door in the middle of the night, several days after the attack:
“Louis died at his battle station.”
When the salvage crews searched his locker, they found a watch he’d already bought his mom for Christmas. It was broken and waterlogged. But the Navy sent it to Effie Costin anyway. She had it repaired and wore it until she died in December 1985. She was 92 years old.
Louis’ sister, Edna Heil, first learned the truth about his death from a reporter last week. “It is so sad, it just breaks you up,” she said.
Her brother Harlan, now 70, had kept his secret. “I just wanted to spare them the grief,” he said, fighting tears.
Another knew the truth
Duke Olds had learned the real story about his brother Cliff from their cousin, a sailor assigned to the shipyards in Bremerton, where the West Virginia was repaired.
He told his other brother and two sisters. But not their parents. It would be too much for them, especially Dad. He and Cliff were close.
Cliff. That tough little rascal. He loved to pick a fight but he always got licked because he was so small.
He made $21 a month in the Navy, but sent $18 of it home to Mom. She put it in war bonds. Saved every penny.
Duke Olds’ mother, Jane, died in 1956. His father, Nathan, died 15 years later. Duke kept his promise — they never learned the truth.
“I’ve never even told it to my wife.”
Nothing left in writing
The calendar, sent to the chief of naval personnel in Washington, D.C., after it was found, now is lost.
Ronald Endicott and Buddy Costin are buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl crater in Honolulu. Cliff Olds’ body was returned to his hometown and buried in the city cemetery.
All their headstones say they died on Dec. 7, 1941.