TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Ernest Suess says he's a lucky man.
From growing up on a farm during the Great Depression; to now, 97-years old, still living on his own with his cat Bucky; and, in between, what he survived December 7, 1941.
Ernest enlisted in the Navy at age 24. At 26, he was assigned to the U.S.S. Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor. Normally stationed to the evaporators and the compressor room, five levels below deck, the fact he was coming off kitchen duty meant he was reassigned to the machine shop, only three decks down.
When the Japanese attacked just before 8 am on a Sunday morning, Ernest didn't even put on his shoes before heading to his battle station. In less than ten minutes, he says, the Oklahoma was on its side, going down. With water flooding the ship, the machine shop crew couldn't open the door to get out. But above them, Ernest says, they spotted a two to three foot opening to the main deck which served as ventilation for the machine shop. A plate that normally should have been over it was off. The men climbed out through the opening, got to the high side of the ship, then walked down its side and jumped in the water. From there, Ernest says, he swam about the length of a football field to Ford Island.
"I was lucky enough to get off before the water got oil-soaked," he said.
From Ford Island, Ernest says he saw the torpedoes and bombs continue their assault, and the destruction. The names of the ships are still clear in his memory. The Utah was sunk. The Arizona was shot up. The Oklahoma, his ship, was going down. The Nevada was aground where it had been trying to make its way down the channel. The West Virginia, too, was in bad shape.
They'd later learn no one from the evaporators or compressor room survived.
Ernest continued in the Navy after the attacks. As World War II continued, he was reassigned to a destroyer that survived nine battles, including another close call for Ernest, when a shell ruptured the side of the engine room where he was standing.
Ernest also served in Korea, retiring from the Navy in 1959. He remembers all his experiences, but especially that day he says brought our nation together 71 years ago.
"I was extremely lucky," he said.
Of the approximately 8,000 service members who survived Pearl Harbor, it's estimated fewer than 2,700 are still alive today.