A handgun that survived the maelstrom of the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, still endures in a place of honor today.
The quiet of that Sunday morning saw two waves of Japanese carrier aircraft swarm over the strategic Hawaiian island port that sheltered the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. With the first planes coming over the harbor at just before 8 a.m.– at least an hour before the Japanese declaration of war against the United States– by 10 a.m. it was all over and 21 ships were left sunk or damaged in their wake.
One of those ships was the USS Shaw, a destroyer that joined the Navy in 1936 and was inside a floating drydock at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard undergoing routine maintenance near the battleship USS Nevada.
According to a report filed after the attack, Shaw was hit directly by three bombs at about the same time that as many as two other bombs landed between the destroyer and the dock. This led to a fierce, uncontrollable blaze on the ship that a short time later reached the vessel’s ammunition magazines, triggering a massive explosion witnessed across the harbor.
In the aftermath of the attack, over 2,300 were killed, including at least 24 casualties on USS Shaw.
As explained to Guns.com by the curators of the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, a civilian employee of the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard in the days immediately after the attack found a damaged M1911 handgun on the deck of the drydock containing USS Shaw. The employee handed it back over to the crew of the destroyer.
The .45ACP GI longslide has Colt rollmarks and patent dates with a serial number, 708104, that puts it inside the 1924 production range for the military. The gun is missing its period two-toned magazine, both of its checkered walnut grip panels, and screws. The pistol’s trigger guard is bent and warped while its front sight is damaged.
Gone is much of Colt’s traditional deep blue finish, replaced by deep pits and scaling no doubt left from burning fuel oil. Although the slide is stamped “Model of 1911” the gun incorporates many of the changes over previous models that would go on to be adopted formally by the Army as the M1911A1 in 1926. Such pistols are referred to as “Transitional Models” by Colt collectors today.
While USS Shaw was quickly repaired and returned to service with the Fleet only to be scrapped in 1946 after the war, the pistol that survived the destroyer’s toughest day of service has been on public display with the National Park Service at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial since 2010.
“In anger and frustration, more than one man ended up firing a pistol at attacking aircraft with little hope of striking anything,” notes the NPS on the public display of S/N 708104.
National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day is Saturday.
Thank you to Scott Pawlowski with the Pearl Harbor National Memorial for his extended help compiling this article.