John Andrew Rauschkolb
Senior Chief Petty Officer – U.S. Navy
USS West Virginia (BB-48);USS Raleigh (CL 7); USS Brazos (AO-4)
World War II & Naval Reserves (1938-1977)
Pearl Harbor Survivor
John Rauschkolb, a spry 92 year old World War II veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor, heads an elite Marin County group, the Marin Pearl Harbor Survivor’s Association. According to Rauschkolb, “We’re a pretty tough bunch although the numbers are dwindling rapidly.” The mantra of this group, which has been meeting since the 1990s, is “Remember Pearl Harbor, Keep America Alert.” Rauschkolb speaks regularly in local schools and fraternal organizations about his service during World War II and the attack on Pearl Harbor. He urges Americans to “pay attention to disaster drills” and remember that we must “find another way other than war to solve the problems of the world. There is no winning in war. There are victors, but everyone loses.”
John Andrew Rauschkolb was born on December 20, 1920 in Illinois. He grew up in Belleville, Illinois and was one of eleven children. Prior to graduation from high school, Rauschkolb obtained the permission of his parents to enlist in the Navy at the age of seventeen. He enlisted in the Navy in June of 1938 and was initially stationed at the Naval Training Center in San Diego, California. Shortly after training, he was assigned to the USS West Virginia (BB 48), an American battleship that embodied state of the art naval architecture.
The USS West Virginia was the last American battleship to be launched prior to the restrictions imposed by the 1922 Washington Conference on Limitation of Naval Armament. It was the most recent of the “super-dreadnoughts,” had water-tight compartmentalization of the hull, and sported the most advanced armor protection. In the spring of 1939, when it became apparent that the United States would most likely enter war on a large scale, the USS West Virginia and the entire US Fleet were sent to the Pacific to act as a deterrent to the Japanese, America’s probably enemy. At the conclusion of Fleet Problem XXI (annual mock naval battle exercises) in April of 1940, the entire fleet was retained in Hawaiian waters. Rauschkolb joined the USS West Virginia in Honolulu, Hawaii and served as a Signalman 3rd class. At this time, a signalman was a naval rate combining both visual communications and advanced lookout skills. Signalmen were responsible for transmitting, receiving, encoding, decoding, and distributing messages obtained via the visual transmission systems of semaphore, visual Morse code (flashing light), and flag hoist signaling. The signalman played an important role in both ship to ship and ship to shore communications. They utilized visual signals to maneuver ships in formation, to transmit emergency signals, tactical signals and routine communications. A signalman was also recognized as a “professional look-out” and was well versed at identifying all types of surface ships, submarines when surfaced and aircraft. Their duty station was always posted on the highest part of the ship, generally very near or on top of the ships bridge, which gave them the best visual advantage. The very nature of the job made the signalman a natural born witness to events. This position would eventually be the saving grace of Rauschkolb. His special vantage point on the USS West Virginia enabled Rauschkolb to have earlier notice of the attack on Pearl Harbor allowing him to save himself and numerous others.
Rauschkolb continued to serve on the USS West Virginia in 1941 as the ship carried out intensive training based out of Pearl Harbor. The ship also operated in various task forces and groups in the Hawaiian operating area, too. According to naval historians, by late November 1941, the training and sentiment of the military was very tense, as war was imminent. The at-sea periods of the USS West Virginia were usually followed by in-port upkeep, with the battleship mooring to masonry “quays” along the southeast shores of Ford Island in the center of Pearl Harbor. On December 7, 1941, the USS West Virginia was moored outboard of the USS Tennessee (BB-43) at berth F-6 with 40 feet of water beneath her keel. Shortly before 8 am, Japanese planes, flying from a six-carrier task force, commenced their well-planned attack on the Fleet at Pearl Harbor.
Rauschkolb recalls being on the signal bridge of the battleship at Pearl Harbor when he first saw Japanese bombers overhead and knew his ship was in for trouble. He had been out late the night before in Waikiki and was aboard ship at 6 am. “I looked out and saw an aircraft heading for the ship,” Rauschkolb said. “As it got closer, I saw that it was Japanese. I immediately knew we were under attack and that it was war.” Although he was only twenty, Rauschkolb knew he had his work cut out that day and would need a strong resolve just to stay alive. Rauschkolb remembers the morning of December 7, 1941 vividly, “[It] was beautiful, but it all changed very quickly.” As a signalman trained to be on the lookout for Japanese planes, he claimed “he could see the planes headed towards the ship.” “I could see that they were Japanese and watched the torpedoes drop from the aircraft headed for the USS West Virginia. I felt six torpedoes and two bombs hit the ship. You could hear the tremendous explosions, feel the vibration in the metal throughout the ship and see the fire,” exclaimed Rauschkolb passionately. The flames engulfed the USS West Virginia quickly and the ship began to take on water. “All hell broke out, the ship began to list, and she had great big holes on her port side,” he stated.
The USS West Virginia took six 18-inch aircraft torpedoes in her port side and two bomb hits. The first bomb penetrated the superstructure deck, wrecking the port casemates and causing that deck to collapse to the level of the galley deck below. Four casemates and the galley caught fire immediately, with the subsequent detonation of the ready-service projectiles stowed in the casemates. The second bomb hit further aft, wrecking one Vought OS2U Kingfisher floatplane atop the “high” catapult on Turret III and pitching the second one on her top on the main deck below. The projectile penetrated the 4-inch turret roof, wrecking one gun in the turret itself. The torpedoes ripped into the ship’s port side. Luckily, the quick actions by Lieutenant Claude V. Ricketts, the assistant fire control officer, saved the ship from flooding and capsize. According to Rauschkolb, he was “fortunate that there was an outstanding crew aboard the USS West Virginia.”
Rauschkolb remembers hearing the order to abandon the battleship as the Japanese aircraft continued the siege on Pearl Harbor. He recalls saying, “No, I will stay right here and fight.” The orders then changed to “all hands” and Rauschkolb jumped into the thick of battle. He remembers moving from the signal bridge to the starboard side of the bridge, and witnessed the ship’s captain get hit by shrapnel. Unfortunately, the ship’s commanding officer, Captain Mervyn S. Bennion, was mortally wounded early in the battle from bomb fragments sprayed off of the adjacent USS Tennessee. Although Bennion had been hit in the abdomen, he continued to command the ship’s defense until just before the ship was abandoned. Bennion continued to fight up to the last moment of his life. Next Rauschkolb moved to the main deck where he was pelted by machine gun bullets from a Japanese Zero fighter plane. He ducked for cover under the overhang of a gun mount and was eventually forced to jump off the bow. As he jumped, Rauschkolb claimed “a Japanese Zero streaked past, strafing the ship. Oil from the USS West Virginia and the nearby USS Arizona was burning on the water’s surface.” “Those bullets are nasty. I was lucky. The overhang of the bow protected me,” Rauschkolb said with a smile. As Rauschkolb and another shipmate worked to extinguish the fire from the explosions, another Japanese Zero fired at them. The bullets rained down on the ship’s deck and both men scrambled for cover. “I looked over at him and he was laughing,” Rauschkolb exclaimed. “Then I began laughing, too.”
To avoid more incoming fire, Rauschkolb dove overboard and swam underwater to avoid burning oil on the water’s surface, only bobbing up for air occasionally. He swam to the USS Tennessee where he helped extinguish a hazardous fire amidships. In the process, Mr. Rauschkolb rescued a friend who had collapsed nearby from smoke inhalation. Later, Rauschkolb was dispatched to the USS Arizona where he had the ungodly task of helping collect the bodies of fallen comrades. It was his darkest moment in the service. “The most difficult job that I have ever had in my whole life was handling the dead bodies,” Rauschkolb sighed. “They were terribly burned, and the stench of human flesh burning is a smell that remains with me to this day. We could not identify the dead, no dog tags and no DNA then,” he stated. Rauschkolb recalls “pulling sailors’ hair as hard as he could while they were in the water. If they groaned, I pulled them out to go for medical treatment.” He noted, “I didn’t have time to move dead bodies and there were a lot of them.” “We only had parts of the bodies anyway. It was very, very difficult,” Rauschkolb expressed.
In the confusion of the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Navy presumed Rauschkolb was dead. It mistakenly sent a telegram to his family informing them of his death and Rauschkolb’s family even held a memorial service in his hometown. Although Rauschkolb was eventually able to contact his family and correct the misinformation, the news was too late for his mother. Sadly, one month after receiving the death notice, Mrs. Rauschkolb, distraught over the news, suddenly passed away.
The USS West Virginia was eventually abandoned and settled to the harbor bottom. Rauschkolb was one of the lucky survivors from this ship. Despite the heroic efforts of Rauschkolb and his fellow shipmates, more than a hundred of the USS West Virginia crew died, many of whom were trapped under the water. As a side note, in late May of 1942, the USS West Virginia’s hull was patched, the battleship pumped out and refloated. On June 9, 1942, the Navy discovered that there had been not six, but seven torpedo hits in all to the battleship. The Japanese Navy, however, contends that the ship was actually hit by nine torpedoes.
Rauschkolb was thereafter assigned to the USS Raleigh, a light cruiser that had survived the attack on Pearl Harbor with minimal damage. Rauschkolb departed Pearl Harbor aboard the USS Raleigh on February 21, 1942, as part of five ship convoy to San Francisco. The primary duty of this ship was to act as an escort. The ship was overhauled at Mare Island from March to July. During this time, Rauschkolb was stationed temporarily at Mare Island and met and married his wife, Beverly Furtado. Once the repairs were complete in July 1942, the USS Raleigh joined Task Force 15 and provided convoy escort duty between San Francisco, Hawaii, the Fiji Islands and Samoa guarding against a Japanese attack from the north.
Rauschkolb remembers that the mission of the USS Raleigh was to search out and destroy Japanese picket ships, search for enemy ships carrying reinforcements in the Rat and Near Islands, as well as to escort troop and supply ships. In January 1943, the USS Raleigh accompanied Task Group 8.6, as part of the occupation of Amchitka Island in the Aleutians. The ship conducted patrols off Amchitka for one month and then detached from the group and commenced convoying ships between Dutch Harbor and Kulak Bay. Later, Rauschkolb and his shipmates joined Task Group 16.6 to patrol the approaches to the Near Islands and Kiska searching for any of the Japanese fleet. In August of 1943, the USS Raleigh participated in the bombardment of Kiska and Gertrude Cove and shelled enemy installations in the Aleutians. In late August, the USS Raleigh returned to the San Francisco Bay Area for overhaul and in mid September, rejoined the support operations in the Aleutians, from Kiska to Attu. The USS Raleigh next joined Task Group 94.6 in February 1944 and went from Massacre Bay in Attu to bombard enemy positions in Paramushiru, the Northern Kuriles, and Kurabu Zaki. Rauschkolb and his fellow sailors blasted batteries, took an airfield under heavy attack, and destroyed the hangar and adjacent barracks. The valiant crew also destroyed a merchant ship that was anchored nearby. Eventually, after months at sea, the USS Raleigh returned for a much needed overhaul in Puget Sound.
In June 1944, the USS Raleigh joined Task Force 94 at Massacre Bay. Despite one of the ship’s main engines being damaged, she continued in service traveling from San Pedro, California, to the Panama Canal and eventually, Norfolk, Virginia. In late 1944, Rauschkolb was transferred to the USS Brazos, a Kanawha class fleet oiler. The USS Brazos carried fuel oil and stores from the west coast to Alaska and the Aleutian Islands and between the Hawaiian and Samoan Islands until January 1945. On January 27, 1945, the USS Brazos left for Japan where she was tasked with providing logistic support for the US invasion fleet in Okinawa. Rauschkolb and the crew of the Raleigh stayed in Okinawa for several months while also providing support in Leyte in the Philippines. After the war in the Pacific ended, the USS Brazos also supported the occupation efforts in Okinawa until November 1945, when she returned to San Francisco and was decommissioned. In 1945, Rauschkolb was discharged from the Navy and promptly joined the Naval Reserve until his retirement on September 1, 1977. His highest rank was Senior Chief Petty Officer. As a result of his heroic efforts in the attack on Pearl Harbor and during World War II, Rauschkolb was awarded the Good Conduct medal with two Silver Stars, a Naval Reserve Meritorious medal, the American Defense medal with star, an American Campaign medal, the Asiatic Pacific medal with 2 stars, a World War II Victory Medal, and the National Defense, Armed Forces Reserve, and Naval Reserve medals.
In addition to his career in the Naval Reserve, Rauschkolb also worked as a postal carrier for the US Postal Service in San Francisco. After his retirement from the Post Office and the Reserves, he became active with various military veteran organizations, including Pearl Harbor Survivor Organizations. Rauschkolb was instrumental in organizing the Marin County Pearl Harbor Association which began with seventeen members and now has only a few surviving members. According to Rauschkolb, “The group has been getting together since the early 1990s, but its numbers are dwindling fast.” “We’re a pretty tough bunch,” he noted and our mantra is “Remember Pearl Harbor, Keep America Alert, and continue to be active public speakers.” In addition to organizing the Marin County Association, Rauschkolb also participates in the Bay Area Pearl Harbor’s Survivor Association that meets in Alameda, California, attends annual Pearl Harbor Commemoration events around the United States including Hawaii, and speaks regularly in local high schools about his service and war time experiences.
Ironically, the man that is the most ardent supporter of Marin County Pearl Harbor veterans and the most visible in the press today was also one of the most reluctant to share his story. It wasn’t until later in life that he realized the importance of sharing his experiences at Pearl Harbor and the atrocities of war. Many veterans have noted that Rauschkolb is able to paint a picture so vivid about his experiences that one is able to understand clearly what was happening at Pearl Harbor, and what the men did to save their fellow shipmates at their own peril. Rauschkolb’s experiences made him a better man because “It brought an awareness of how short life can be and what a blessing we have in the time that we have available.” John Rauschkolb wants everyone to remember the atrocities of Pearl Harbor and note that we “Need to find another way other than war to solve the problems of the world. There is no winning in wars.”
Narrative by Nicholas Elsbree on November 12, 2013.