Edward Killeen, USS Tennessee Survivor


By: Birte Petersen

Edward Killeen was born on June 18, 1922 in Phoenix, Arizona. Growing up in that landlocked place, he didn’t have an opportunity to travel by sea or experience life aboard a ship. His only route to joining the United States Marine Corps was through his musical talent. He enlisted as a bugler, and was stationed on the cruiser USS Honolulu (CL-48) in 1941. Soon afterward, he transferred to the battleship USS Tennessee (BB-43). Edward Killeen wasn’t thinking of war or death when he joined the Marines. He was looking for a chance to see the world. However, just a few months after his assignment to Hawaii he got his first experience of combat. On December 7, 1941, an aerial striking force of the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Still only a 19-year-old teenager, Edward Killeen witnessed the brutal attack first hand.

Edward Killeen at Pearl Harbor

Edward Killeen was one of the first men to spot the wave of approaching Japanese planes. Shortly before 0800 on that quiet Sunday morning, he was high above deck cleaning parts of an anti-aircraft gun aboard USS Tennessee in Pearl Harbor. Realizing that the aircraft were hostile, he ran down to the deck in terror, his feet hardly even touching the steps. As a bugler, it was his job to alert the men sleeping below deck. In this moment of fear, all he could produce was a squeak and a honk from the bugle. The men who started to gather on the main deck were poking fun at him, until they realized the imminent danger they and their fleet were in.

Edward Killeen had only few months to experience military life in peaceful times before the US was thrust into World War II. In that time, he had enjoyed getting to know the men from the other battleships based at Pearl Harbor and going into Honolulu for nights on the town.

As the attack unfolded, Killeen saw many of those same men injured and killed. He was on the main deck of USS Tennessee when USS Arizona (BB-39)—named after Edward Killeen’s home state—was hit by a 16-inch shell. The enormous vessel, moored directly aft of Tennessee, was torn in half by a massive explosion when her forward magazine was hit. 1,177 men were killed as their ship exploded and sank to the bottom of the lagoon. Some of the men who tried to swim to safety found themselves covered in thick, burning oil. One memory that particularly stuck in Edward Killeen’s memory was the sight of a man with his clothes all burned off, his skin peeling.

Explosion of the USS Arizona (BB-39)

Explosion of the USS Arizona (BB-39)

Killeen described the attack as a long morning of repeated attacks by relentless Japanese pilots. While many people imagine the attack on Pearl Harbor as a quick affair, to him it seemed like that morning would never end.

Military Service After Pearl Harbor

Despite Killeen’s horrifying experiences at Pearl Harbor, he stayed in the Marine Corps until the end of the war in 1945, working as a bugler, a bazooka man, and a translator. He was present during the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942 and the Battle of Saipan in 1944. Edward Killeen was injured by a quarter-sized piece of shrapnel near his spine in 1944 and subsequently received a Purple Heart. In 1945, he was honorably discharged after serving throughout the Pacific Theater for four years.

Post-War Life

While still serving the Marines, Edward Killeen married his girlfriend Ethel Kramer in San Diego in June of 1943. Their first two sons were born there in 1945 and 1948, while Killeen was working as an opera singer. In 1956, the family moved to Sunnyvale, CA, where they bought a home and settled down. Two more sons were born in 1961 and 1967. Killeen worked as a travelling salesman selling pipes and tobacco until his retirement in the late 1980s.

Edward Killeen enjoyed good health and an active family life, but he struggled with his memories of the attack on Pearl Harbor for the rest of his life.

With his children and grandchildren keeping him active, Edward Killeen lived to the age of 92. He passed away in his sleep in August, 2014.

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