Honoring An Oklahoman Who Survived The Attack On Pearl Harbor


Monday, December 7th 2020, 8:00 am
By: Colby Thelen


High on its pedestal in Campbell Art Park in Midtown Oklahoma City, the anchor of the USS Oklahoma stands in remembrance of the lives lost 79 years ago in the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

One Oklahoman knew it well. Chipping away the old paint and putting on a fresh coat was one of the many duties of Joe Lawter. His work however was done while the anchor was in use. 

In the late 80's Lawter did a recorded interview with the Oklahoma History Center about that day and how he survived. 

After graduating from Central High School in Oklahoma City, Lawter enlisted with the Marines. An accomplished musician, he became one of the two buglers aboard the USS Oklahoma. He was on board only 10 months before the day that would live in infamy. 

For Lawter, it began as a typical Sunday morning. It was his day to play the call to colors. He never got the opportunity. 

From the fantail of the ship, minutes before 8 a.m., he spotted incoming Japanese planes and alerted the corporal of the guards. 

"The corporal of the guard turned to me and said 'Lawter you're payed to blow, not think,'" Lawter recalled. "And I said they were Japanese planes. About that time, we got hit with the first torpedo."

He then turned to the boatswain's mate standing next to the ship's public address system and told him to announce general quarters. 

"He said 'General quarters! General quarters! and this is no bulls***'" Lawter recalled. "That probably saved more lives on the Oklahoma than anything else because you wouldn't dare say that unless you meant it." 

As the ship began to tilt sideways, Lawter threw his bugle as far as he could into the water, stripped down to his skivvies and jumped in. He began to swim toward the Maryland.

"While I was in the water the Arizona blew up. Everything was flying in the air. The water was on fire." 

Lawter recalled little time to fear, only to react. Soon the nation would learn the extent of the attack. 

19 ships were destroyed including eight battleships. The USS Oklahoma was among them.

While Lawter survived, 2,403 of his brothers in arms did not. 

After the war, he received a Doctor of Education and taught at several Oklahoma schools. 

When Joe Lawter passed away in December of 1995, his memorial service was held on the 7th. It was 54-years after he spotted Japanese planes from the fantail of the USS Oklahoma.