Greg Mason, a retired U.S. Army Staff Sergeant, is part of a long lineage of military service members. On August 27, 75 years after a citation signed by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz was awarded to his grandfather, Mason donated it to the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) during a visit to the ship.
Mason’s grandfather, Guy Adams Mason, and his best friend John Arnold Austin were both stationed in Pearl Harbor in December of 1941.
When orders to the Nevada-class battleship USS Oklahoma (BB 37) and the Altair-class destroyer tender USS Rigel (AR 11) populated in 1941, each needed chief warrant officers in their carpentry shops. Guy Mason insisted Austin take the orders to the Oklahoma to experience battleship life; Mason had previously been stationed on a battleship, the USS Nevada (BB 36).
“He told his best friend, John, that he should experience officer-life on a battleship,” said Greg Mason as he talked about how his grandfather persuaded his best friend to take the orders. “John was a taller, portly man,” added Mason.
Sunday morning, Dec. 7, at 7:53 a.m., Guy Mason was at his house which overlooked the harbor above Ford Island. Guy Mason and his son Arthur were home. Greg Mason talked about his then eight-year-old father looking down on the harbor and seeing a lightshow, hearing awesome sounds and being entertained by the display. Guy Mason realized Austin was on duty that day down the hill on the Oklahoma and got a uniform on, called a shipmate and waited for a ride.
The USS Oklahoma started to roll almost instantly and within 15 minutes, the ship was capsized. Austin was in the carpentry shop onboard and after the torpedoes struck the sides there was one exit: a porthole.
Austin assisted with the escape of 15 shipmates from the carpentry shop.
By the time the second wave of attacks hit Pearl Harbor at 8:55 a.m., Guy Mason was in a car with three other Sailors, driving through the parking lot of the Officer’s Club on base.
Greg Mason chuckled as he recounted the story told by his grandfather, “My grandfather said as they were driving through the parking lot, the second wave of attacks was happening and he told the driver to stop the car, get out, and hide underneath the car. The driver replied ‘but sir, I can’t stop here this is the Officer’s club, and I’m enlisted’.”
By the time they got down to the shore, it had been over an hour since the first wave of attacks hit the island. Guy Mason reported to the Rigel, heard what happened to the Oklahoma and raced to the battleship.
Guy Mason and a few Sailors climbed on the hull of the Oklahoma and Greg Mason remembered his grandfather telling him the screams and banging from inside the hull told them there were survivors, and he had to get in: Austin was inside. Guy Mason drilled small holes to make sure he was not cutting a fuel or oil tank, then cut through the metal to gain access.
“My father said ‘I remember seeing my father put his uniform on that day, get in a car and he did not return for three days, and when he did, his feet were covered in bandages due to burns from being on the hot hull of the ship,” said Greg Mason.
Greg Mason added that was the only time Arthur Mason saw his father cry.
During his three days inside the capsized-Oklahoma, Guy Mason used cold chisels to get to different compartments throughout the ship, all in search for his best friend, who he knew was a larger man. He stayed in the ship, desperately looking for Austin, who he felt would not have been on duty, nor the Oklahoma at all, had he not convinced Austin to experience the battleship lifestyle. As long as sounds were coming from inside the ship, there was still a chance Austin was alive.
“My grandfather only stayed in the ship for three days because the screams and banging lasted for three days, which meant John may still need to be saved,” Said Greg Mason.
When the banging and screaming stopped, Guy Mason knew it was over, and that Austin had died.
Both Guy Mason and Austin saved many lives that day, and Austin lost his in the process. The Evarts-class destroyer escort USS Austin (DE 15), commissioned in 1943, was named in honor of Austin, who posthumously received the Navy Cross.
Due to his tireless efforts looking for Austin, Guy Mason saved the lives of 32 Sailors stuck on the inside of the Oklahoma and his actions were recognized by the Navy, and was awarded a citation of heroism signed by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.
“My grandfather did not set-out to be a hero,” said Greg Mason. “He knew his best friend was on the Oklahoma, due to his advice of going to the Oklahoma, and was trying to find him. He ultimately saved 32 lives while looking for one.”