By all logic, John Kline should not be sitting in his comfortable Marquette living room, regaling visitors with stories about his years in the US Navy. Yet here he is, World War II memorabilia spread out before him, chatting amiably about one near-death experience after another.
From his earliest days, Kline ’49 has made a specialty of dodging bullets, both literal and figurative. The first calamity he remembers was falling head first into a rock-lined basement back in 1927 or so, when he was three or four years old. "My mother staunched the bleeding with spider webs," he recalls.
Kline emerged unbloodied from his second big disaster, unlike 3,684 other American servicemen who became casualties of war on December 7, 1941.
The scrawny 18-year-old from Laurium had enlisted a year earlier and was serving on the battleship USS Nevada, anchored in Pearl Harbor. He was on duty in the pump room, six levels below deck, when he heard loud banging noises, "like steam lines hammering."
Kline trotted off to the boiler rooms make sure everything was OK. About that time, other crewmen arrived with unbelievable news: Pearl Harbor—along with the USS Nevada—was under attack. They were met with skepticism. "We took awhile to be convinced," he says. Finally, their first petty officer opened their eyes to the gravity of the situation. "He was shouting ‘The Japs are coming!’"
Kline reported to his battle station, a powder magazine, and began running gunpowder to the upper deck. He could hear the battle raging above his head. "We passed powder up so fast they couldn’t handle it for awhile," he recalls. "Then, when the ship started to sink, they flooded our magazine." The Nevada was hit early, and, when it began to list, the crew deliberately flooded portions of the ship to keep it upright. Eventually the Nevada’s guns would bring down four Japanese planes.
Once on the third deck, Kline and his shipmates lined up to be issued rifles. "Some guys fired guns on deck at the Jap planes flying right over you," he remembers. There weren’t enough small arms to go around, however, so Kline and others began to prepare for firefighting and rescue operations. "We tore down bunks for stretchers, tore mattress covers for bandages, cut open gas mask cans, and were assigned to fight fire forward," he says.
Of the eight battleships damaged at Pearl Harbor during the surprise attack, the Nevada was the only one able to maneuver. After being torpedoed and hit by at least five bombs, however, it was grounded to avoid sinking in the harbor’s channel, where it would have bottled up what remained of the fleet.
"The day passed so fast," says Kline. "When things started to settle down, we reported back to our divisions. At the time, the ship was aground next to a cane field [a place that would be known as Nevada Point]. I stood watch in the No. 2 Pump Room and had fifteen minutes on and forty-five minutes off throughout the rest of the day and night, due to the heat and lack of air."
Was he ever scared? "Not really," Kline says. The harbor was shallow, so he didn’t worry about drowning in deep water. And the raw excitement of the battle kept fear at bay; everyone focused on shooting down planes, fighting fires, rescuing their shipmates, and just trying not to get hit.
Over the following days, Kline and thousands of other survivors joined in the cleanup. "Having lost everything but what we had on, we were given toilet articles, clean clothes, and two meals a day," he remembers. "We were sleeping in a bowling alley, lined up on the lanes. We’d sleep crosswise. Your head would be in one gutter and your feet in another."
It was sad and grisly duty. "When we ran into bodies in the debris, we called corpsmen, who then dug the bodies out," he says. Sixty men had died on the Nevada; overall, 2,402 were killed and 1,282 wounded in the Japanese attack.
Kline picks up an old prescription pill bottle and unscrews the top. Inside is a length of black ribbon, rolled tightly and fastened with a pin. He straightens it out; on the ribbon, in faded yellow letters, is printed "USS Nevada."
At one time, sailors all wore hatbands like this, he says, each bearing the name of his ship. The practice was banned before the Pearl Harbor attack, however. "They caused a lot of fights in the bars," Kline explains lightly, in a tone that suggests direct knowledge.
Kline found this particular hatband hidden inside a cap he retrieved while cleaning up the Nevada’s deck. He never knew who the owner was or whether he lived or died. "It still has the oil spots on it from the attack," he points out. "I used to wear it on my hat during Pearl Harbor Day."
He kept the ribbon in his shoe. The cleanup crew’s dirty clothing was washed and replaced with clean items during their daily shower, and Kline feared the ribbon would be lost if he ever parted with it.
Months later, after the USS Nevada was refloated, he received a check in the mail for $27.87, the amount of money he’d left behind in his locker. It was a lot of money back then, Kline remembers. His monthly paycheck was $21.
On December 14, Kline boarded the aircraft carrier USS Lexington. It was a momentous occasion: "Chow for breakfast was ham and eggs," he remembers fondly. Edward "Butch" O’Hare was also stationed on the Lexington, and Kline was there when O’Hare returned from his legendary Medal of Honor flight over the Pacific, when the fighter pilot singlehandedly took on a formation of eight bombers. O’Hare shot down three, and anti-aircraft fire dispatched the rest. He would perish later in the war; his heroism would prompt Chicago to rename its airport in his honor.
Soon thereafter, the ship returned to port. "While we were provisioning the ship, we were a human chain, passing food to the storerooms," Kline said. "At that time, I became sick with abdominal pain." He went to sick bay and was quickly transferred to the hospital ashore, in Honolulu. On the way to the hospital, the driver gave him some advice: "Tell them it hurts like hell."
Kline did as he was told and was immediately sent into surgery. "My appendix burst while they were looking for it," he says. He was laid up for three months, which meant that he wasn’t on board when his ship was deployed to the South Pacific. Again, Kline dodged a bullet.
"While I was in the hospital, the Lexington sank in the Battle of the Coral Sea," he says. Three hundred men died.
Kline was reassigned to the USS Barnes, where he experienced another near miss. A fighter pilot lost control while attempting to land and hit a nearby sailor, killing him.
He was discharged from the navy in July 1946, as a machinist mate first class, and in September enrolled at Michigan Tech. He graduated three years later with honors and a BS in Mechanical Engineering. Kline joined the Army Corps of Engineers in 1950 and married his wife, Joyce, in 1951. They had four children and seven grandchildren. He would go on to help build K. I. Sawyer Air Force Base, in Gwinn, and serve there as a civilian engineer with the US Air Force from 1965 until his retirement in 1985.
Kline occasionally receives letters from schoolchildren wanting to know about his experiences in Pearl Harbor, and he answers them all.
Does he ever wonder how he managed to survive to tell the tale? "All the time," Kline says with a smile. "I’m on my second pacemaker."