Nov 29

Fighting Fires during the Pearl Harbor Attack

Wednesday, November 29, 2017 9:07 AM


RADM Robert Erly, USN (Ret.)

RADM Robert B. Erly, USN (Ret.)

In this selection from Rear Admiral Robert B. Erly’s second interview with Paul Stillwell at the U.S. Naval Institute on 7 September 1988, the Navy flag officer recounts his arrival by car in the middle of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and his efforts to fight the fires on the drydocked destroyers USS Cassin (DD-372) and Downes (DD-375) and the battleship Pennsylvania (BB-38) on 7 December 1941.

Based on six interviews, conducted by Paul Stillwell from May 1987 to April 1992. The volume contains 459 pages of interview transcript plus a comprehensive index. The transcript is copyright 2015 by the U.S. Naval Institute; the interviewee placed no restrictions on its use.

This memoir emphasizes three principal legs of the tripod that dominated much of Admiral Erly’s career: destroyer operations, amphibious warfare, and relations with other nations in the Americas. Erly graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1937 and spent the next year in the battleship USS New Mexico (BB-40). He served on board the destroyer USS Conyngham (DD-371) in 1938-39. Despite receiving flight training in Florida in 1940, he was advised to return to surface ships, which he did. His service on board the Cassin in 1941 came to an end when the ship was badly damaged during the 7 December attack.

The USS Cassin toppled onto the USS Downes in the flooded drydock at Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941, with the USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) behind.

The USS Cassin toppled onto the Downes in the flooded drydock at Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941, with the USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) behind.

After temporary assignments around Pearl Harbor in late 1941-early 1942, Erly was in the commissioning crew of the destroyer USS Frazier (DD-607) in 1942. Because of his Spanish language capability, he reported in 1943 to advise the Cuban Navy on behalf of Commander Gulf Sea Frontier. He was executive officer of the destroyer USS Laub (DD-613) in the Italian campaign in 1944 when she collided with the light cruiser USS Philadelphia (CL-41). His first command, in 1944–45, was the destroyer USS Phelps (DD-360). He served in the U.S. naval mission to Venezuela, 1946-48; was executive officer of the destroyer tender Yosemite (AD-19) in 1948-49, and in 1949-50 was an instructor at the General Line School, Newport, Rhode Island. Erly recommissioned the destroyer USS James C. Owens (DD-776) in 1950 and commanded her until 1952, including service in the Korean War. In 1952–53 he was a student at the Armed Forces Staff College. He served on the staff of Commander Amphibious Group Two, 1953–55; served in OpNav, 1955–58; and was the first commanding officer of the attack transport USS Paul Revere (APA-248) in 1958–59. In 1959–60 he was on the Amphibious Force Pacific Fleet staff as operations officer; commanded Amphibious Squadron Five, 1961–62, and was a student in 1962–63 at the National War College. After service in 1963–65 as chief of staff to Commander Amphibious Force Pacific Fleet, Erly was selected for flag rank, and in 1965–66 served as Commander Amphibious Group Three and Commander River/Coastal Warfare Group during the development of riverine warfare doctrine. He served 1966–68 in OP-63 as coordinator of inter-American affairs, naval missions, and MAAGs. From 1968 to 1972 he served on the Atlantic Fleet staff, first as inspector general, and later as Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Operations. His final active tour, 1972–74 was as Commander Iberian Atlantic Command and Chief of the Military Assistance Advisory Group in Portugal.

To read more about the Naval Institute Oral History Program, go to

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