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101-year-old Pearl Harbor veteran recalls narrow escape from attack

Posted at 6:47 PM, Dec 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-07 23:39:22-05

OCEANSIDE, Calif. (KGTV) — 79 years after the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into World War Two, there are few survivors remaining. However, the memories of that day are crystal clear for 101-year-old Oceanside resident George Coburn.

“One of the things I’ll always remember is the time I spent swimming after the Oklahoma turned over," Coburn said during an interview with ABC 10News. "I thought about a lot of things when I was in the water there.”

Coburn was aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma on December 7th, 1941. He was working to prepare for a major inspection that was scheduled for the following day. Rumors began circulating belowdecks that the base was under attack. The rumor was confirmed just a few minutes later. "“I still remember the announcement. It was was rather unique. 'Real planes. Real bombs. No [expletive]'

The Oklahoma took several hits from Japanese torpedoes. As the battleship began to sink, hundreds of sailors were trapped, including Coburn. He managed to wedge himself out through a porthole. "If I had been a little bit bigger, it would have been a hell of a tough job.”

Coburn plummeted several feet into the water below. He found himself surrounded by burning shrapnel. However, he says the most terrifying danger was the continuous fire from Japanese fighters. “I could see the little geysers of machine gun bullets hitting the water.”

After a few minutes in the water, Coburn managed to find the rope tying the Oklahoma to the neighboring USS Maryland. He climbed the rope aboard the Maryland and survived the remainder of the attack.

Coburn went on to serve in many of the biggest naval actions of the war. He was awarded the Purple Heart after being struck by several pieces of shrapnel during the Battle of Okinawa. Do to a Navy paperwork error, Coburn was never given eight other medals from his service. He finally received the medals in 2019, after a campaign by a Palomar College historian and the intervention of Congressman Mike Levin. Coburn said it did not bother him that it took so long. “I knew what I’d done and where I’d been. The medals didn’t change that a particle.”