Pearl Harbor survivor turns 100
Last updated 12/6/2022 at Noon
Five years ago, Craig Rullman told in the pages of The Nugget Marvin Emmarson’s incredible story of survival during the Pearl Harbor attack and later enduring a catastrophic torpedo assault that almost took out his ship, the U.S.S. Selfridge.
Emmarson is a man of few words, so his story has to be told by loved ones and the pages of U.S. history books. Regardless of who’s recounting Emmarson’s life, his 100 years on the planet have been full of adventure, loss, and finding fun in all kinds of situations.
Talking about his upcoming birthday, and the 81st anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Emmarson isn’t taking anything for granted. He knows life can change in an instant. He’ll celebrate his birthday this December, but added, “I’m not there yet!”
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor took place at 0751 hours, a few minutes before morning colors. The attack killed more than 2,400 military personnel, wounded 1,100 people, and damaged or destroyed 19 ships. Emmarson was below decks, and didn’t know anything was happening until sirens went off. Within minutes of the sounding of general quarters, the Selfridge crew was firing on incoming planes.
“I was sleeping below deck when it happened. I had to go to the engine room, but before I did, I saw one plane go by and that was all I saw. The alarm went off on the ship, that tells everybody to go to their battle stations. We didn’t know why the alarm had gone off,” said Emmarson.
The U.S.S. Selfridge got underway as fast as possible.
“We went out to find the Japanese carriers… luckily, we didn’t find any. I never did see much because I was in the engine room all the time,” he recalled.
Marvin Emmarson was born on December 13, 1922. He grew up in Astoria, went to grade school in Northwest Portland, and finished his schooling at an all-boys school, Benson Polytechnic High School. The mascot for the school is the Techmen. That name would prove prophetic for Emmarson, who became an engineer in the U.S. Navy. His job, keeping the U.S.S. Selfridge running at full steam, was grueling, hot, and imperative to its survival. Emmarson and his shipmates overcame the odds, under circumstances so trying it’s hard to believe they’re true. But like so many heroic stories from WWII, truth was stranger than fiction.
After the attack, the U.S.S. Selfridge was sent out to patrol the entrance to Pearl Harbor and after a few weeks started toward Wake Island.
Being below decks kept Emmarson away from the action roiling around him. But a direct hit could have left him trapped and done-for in the steaming bowels of the ship. On one of the Selfridge’s many missions, his ship escorted an aircraft carrier that fell to the Japanese from a torpedo. The Selfridge also escorted four ships to New Zealand then set sail for Guadalcanal. Aboard the last ship in their brigade, the Selfridge crew witnessed the loss of the Lexington and five cruisers. The U.S.S. Chicago was hit by a torpedo that demolished the ship’s bow. Then it was the Selfridge’s turn to experience a similar fate.
The ship took heavy torpedo damage in the Battle of Vella La Vella on October 6, 1943, exploding with a direct hit to the bow. The front of the ship was a mangled mass of metal.
“We were firing at enemy ships and a torpedo boat came up from behind one of the islands. We didn’t even see it. They just torpedoed into us and hit the powder magazine and blew the ship in half,” said Emmarson.
That’s where his good friend Owen Bauserman, who he signed up with, was lost. The Selfridge lost 13 sailors that day. Eleven were wounded, and 36 were missing in action.
“My ship was blown in half, and I was in the half that stayed afloat,” said Emmarson.
After repairs to secure the bulkhead and keep her afloat, Emmarson’s crewmates began a 7,000-mile journey, taking their crippled ship all the way back to Mare Island in California to have a whole new bow built.
“I guess my military training kicked in and we did what we had to do,” Emmarson said.
Emmarson explained that the Selfridge had a steel bulkhead across the doors that kept the water out.
“The bow was gone clear back to the bridge. We weren’t towed back; we were under our own power. It was kind of rough below deck,” he said.
Now with his harrowing experiences far behind him, Emmarson prefers to take it easy and crack a few jokes along the way. When asked about his good health and longevity he shot back a quick reply: “Lots of booze and women keeps you young!”
A fastidious gardener, he’s out in the yard every day making sure there’s never a pine needle or pinecone that stays on the ground for long. During our visit Emmarson’s stepson, John Tehan, and his wife, Peggy Tehan, were there to attest to his gardening prowess and reputation as a man of few words but much hard work.
“He’s always kept his yard up. It’s neat and tidy with things organized,” said Peggy. “Having activities like that keep me going and keep my yard looking good,” added Emmarson.
When asked what his favorite thing is to do these days, Emmarson answered: “Sleep. I don’t do much but sit in this house now.”
He likes to watch “Jeopardy!,” “Wheel of Fortune,” and “American Ninja Warrior.”
“I don’t know the answers on ‘Jeopardy!’, I just watch it,” he said. “I don’t have all the answers for questions people ask me, like advice to younger people. I’ve been by myself in this house for quite a while since my wife, Marge, passed away a few years ago.”
Emmarson may not dispense much advice for his grandkids, but he set the example of how to preserve what you’ve got and take care of yourself. Emmarson quit drinking about a year ago. John Tehan joked, “We can start up anytime though.”
Emmarson used to go to Navy reunions, and has kept booklets with photographs of the Selfridge before and after it was blown in half. After the Selfridge, he served on other ships. The last reunion he went to was about 15 years ago, as they kept getting smaller and smaller. One impromptu reunion happened in Sisters. Emmarson was down at the Sisters Hotel and went into the bathroom, where he met a man he’d served with. The man said, “Whitey! Is that you?” It was good to see his old shipmate and hear the name he was given because his hair was so blond.
Looking back for Emmarson, there’s a lot of memories he can’t find anymore.
“I didn’t keep track of what happened in my life,” he said. “It just happened and that was it.”
He and his second wife, Marge, who is John Tehan’s mother, got married in Las Vegas.
“I was still drinking then,” he said with a laugh. Emmarson does remember his last drink though. “I had one drink over at John’s place and that was it,” he said with a soft chuckle.
“We try to coax him into another Kahlua and cream, but nothing doing,” said Peggy Tehan.
The Nugget story about Marvin Emmarson written by Craig Rullman can be found at: https://nuggetnews.com/Content/Current-News/Current-News/Article/Sisters-Pearl-Harbor-survivor/5/5/26038?s=1.