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Pearl Harbor Story: The Steen Brothers on the USS Oklahoma

Remembering The Day of Infamy, December 7, 2010.
Today is the Anniversary of greatest attack on American Soil

by Geniece Marcum
from the book The Best of Senior Quest

We pay tribute here to brothers, Seamen Paul Thompson Steen and Harold Burk Steen, survivors of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. They were the oldest of four sons born to James Burk Steen of Hiseville, Kentucky, and Blanche Thompson Steen of Knob Lick.

Their maternal grandfather, Tom Waddie Thompson, is still remembered as an extensive land-holder in the northern section of Metcalfe County, around the Pleasant Valley area. "Tom Wad," as he was usually referred to locally, owned a grist mill at one time and was a successful dealer in cattle and timber.

Both Paul and Harold Steen were born on the old home place, as was their older sister, Virginia Steen Murphy. These three had a strong attachment to the land of their ancestor, most of which still belongs in the family today.

As young adults, Paul Steen and his brother Harold decided to follow family tradition by joining the military, so the two had already enlisted in the United States Navy before the US entered WWII. Paul, then 22, joined on May 28, 1940, and Harold enlisted the following December, 27, 1940. It's likely that the brothers had asked to serve together, since both were assigned to the USS Oklahoma, one of several US Warships moored at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Aboard the USS Oklahoma that Sunday morning, for some reason, GM3/c Harold Steen had dressed and gone to the top deck early to report for duty as gunner's mate. Much later he would realize that this very act had likely saved his life. At that same time, his brother, machinist's mate MoMM1/c Paul Steen, was in the ship's hold with other members of his crew. There was nothing about that peaceful Sunday morning to warn anyone that disaster was about to strike.

It was around 7:55 a.m. (Hawaii time), when the first bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. More than 300 Japanese planes attacked Pacific Fleet units at the Naval base, and army aircraft at Hickman Field. When the assault ended nearly two hours later the Pacific Fleet had lost eight battleships. Among the losses were the battleships USS Arizona, USS California, USS Oklahoma, and USS West Virginia.

The Oklahoma, an older ship with much less adequate protection against underwater damage, was hit by up to nine torpedoes during the attack. Her hull's port side was opened almost completely for a distance of over 250 feet. She listed quickly, her port bilge struck the harbor bottom and she then rolled almost completely over, coming to rest less than twenty minutes after she was first hit. Some of Oklahoma's men were still alive inside her upturned hull and their rescue became an intense effort over the next two days. Thirty-two sailors were recovered alive but over four hundred were killed.

Harold and the naval seaman sharing duty with him that morning held their post, firing at enemy planes until their ammunition was gone. There was no way to get more. Their ship had been hit and suddenly Harold saw his buddy drop beside him without a sound after being hit by enemy fire. At the order to abandon ship, Harold jumped from the top deck into the water below and begin swimming away from the sinking Oklahoma.

As a machinist's mate, Paul Steen was in the ship's hold with other members of the crew when the surprise attack came that morning. When the USS Oklahoma began to sink, these men realized there was no way out for them except through the porthole.

It was years after WWII before Paul began to talk about his wartime experiences. Then he often mentioned the priest who was with them that fateful morning and how he helped lift and push a lot of his fellow seamen through the porthole as the ship was turning upside down underwater, but couldn't get through it himself because he was too heavy.

As he left the ship's porthole, the powerful suction of the ocean created by the sinking Oklahoma caught at Paul, snapping his head back against the ship and injuring his throat so that he was unable to speak for several days. But he and the other men who had escaped with him were able to get free of the ship and try to swim to shore.

They were far from safety even then. Oil-covered water was on fire all around them and more than that, Japanese planes were still coming in low, strafing the water, trying to shoot survivors as they swam.

The Steen brothers barely escaped with their lives that day, while more than 2,300 other military and civilian personnel were not as lucky.

Once away from the Oklahoma, the men must have had doubts that they were any better off. The harbor was filled with peril for hundreds of survivors struggling to get to the shore. Japanese planes overhead were continuing their attacks against the naval fleet anchored there, and by then a floating oil slick was on fire around the swimmers. At that point neither Paul nor Harold Steen had any idea whether the other was still alive.

When Harold jumped ship he first attempted to swim to another vessel anchored nearby but that ship had been hit too, and Harold realized was already sinking. He was forced to swim away. Harold was described as having been an excellent swimmer and was able to remain underwater for long periods of time, which likely gave him an edge in survival over many other men around him.

At home in the United States on that quiet Sunday morning of December 7, 1941, a stunned and disbelieving America heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor by radio. Virginia Steen Murphy, sister of the Steen brothers, recalls her landlady telling her to turn on her radio. "The Oklahoma is sinking!" she said. The family knew both Paul and Harold were serving on the Oklahoma at the time and Virginia hurried to the home of their mother, to break the terrible news to her.

"By the time I reached her house I was beside myself," Virginia recalls. "But Mamma accepted the news with surprising calm.

"Don't be so upset now," she comforted her daughter, "I believe they will be all right."

"She had that much faith," Virginia says, still awed today by the strength of her mother's belief.

Mrs. Steen spent much time in prayer for the safety of her sons and nothing could shake her faith that those prayers would be answered.

It was several days after the attack at Pearl Harbor before Paul and his brother were reunited, and nearly two weeks passed before word of their safety reached their overjoyed family. The survival of both the young seamen was nothing short of miraculous. There was a time when members of the same family were allowed to serve together in our military even though in several instances both a father and son or brothers were killed in battle. That practice ended after the five Sullivan brothers all died while serving together during WWII.

Paul and Harold were assigned to separate ships following Pearl Harbor and the declaration of WWII. From that time until the end of the war, all their family knew of their whereabouts was that both men were serving "somewhere in the south Pacific."

MoMM1/c Paul Steen was awarded the American Defense medal with one star, American Theater, Asiatic-Pacific with six major battle stars, Good Conduct and the victory ribbons. GM3/c Harold Steen also earned the American Defense with one battle star, The American Theater, Asiatic-Pacific with four major battle stars, Philippine Campaign with two stars, and the Victory Ribbons.

Throughout all of this, Blanche Steen was comforted by the fact that her two younger sons, Bobby and Jack, were still at home with her, but that ended in October of 1943, when ARM 2/c Bobby Steen enlisted in the US Navy. As soon as he was old enough, in June of 1945, S2/c Jack Steen followed what had by now become family tradition and joined his three older brothers by joining the US Navy also.

After the war ended, Paul and Harold returned to their homes in Bowling Green to live, but each one frequently sought the solitude of their birthplace, near Knob Lick, Kentucky, to spend their free time. This quiet country place had always been special to both men because of its connection to their ancestors. Perhaps now they looked at it as a refuge in which to try to find again something of the carefree days they had once known there.

For many years neither man would talk of their wartime experiences. That was something they clearly wanted behind them.

However, to the amazement of the entire Steen family, it seemed that there was one last reminder from Pearl Harbor in store for Paul. Always looking after the spiritual welfare of her handsome young sons, Blanche Steen had sent Paul a Bible after he left home to serve in the US Navy.

On the day Pearl Harbor was attacked more than 67 years ago now, that Bible was in Paul's locker, carefully locked away in its waterproof box. When their ship was destroyed, Paul and the men with him barely got out of it with their lives. Everything else was left behind, including the Bible in his locker.

Then, in the late 1940's when the Oklahoma was raised from its watery grave, Paul's Bible was discovered on the floor of the ship's hull, still locked in its airtight, waterproof box, undamaged by bombs powerful enough to destroy an entire ship, not to mention the years it had spent underwater. At last the Bible was returned by the military to Paul's mother, Mrs. Blanche Steen who kept it for the rest of her life.

At her death Paul took the Bible and its box to his own home at Knob Lick. According to family members, this was his most treasured possession. It seems only fitting that this was the Bible used in his funeral service after his death in 1995.

Both Paul and Harold Steen are now deceased. They are survived by their younger brothers Bobby and Jack,their older sister Virginia Murphy and Paul's daughter, Paula Noffsinger.

Paula, of Bowling Green, now has her father's Bible. "It is something I treasure very much," she says. "It is part of history and symbolizes my grandmother's unyielding faith in God."

This story was posted on 2016-12-07 10:08:13
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