By Bob Krauss
Sometimes good stories get lost in the rush of daily news. George Y. Nakamoto's 2-inch obituary didn't cover his heroism on Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor. Like saving 25 lives.
A civilian tugboat skipper, he wasn't even supposed to be there. But another tug captain wanted to attend a lu'au the night before, so they traded shifts.
At dawn, he loaded a dredge crew in his old, wooden towboat, Balboa, for a trip out to the middle of Pearl Harbor Channel where the dredge was anchored.
Japanese bombers began flying over. One of the torpedo planes flew by so close and low that he saw the torpedo drop, hit the water and explode into the minelayer USS Oglala, tied up outboard of the USS Helena, a four-stack cruiser.
Nakamoto ran the tug by himself on Sundays.
"A young Navy officer came in a whale boat from the Oglala and asked for help," Nakamoto once recalled. "He told us the ship was taking on water." Nakamoto asked for volunteers. A man from the dredge jumped on board the tug.
"We towed the Oglala away from the Helena and pushed her into the 1010 Dock but she turned over on her side," Nakamoto remembered.
Meanwhile, Japanese bombers circled out to sea for a run on Battleship Row. The USS Arizona and other battleships were hit.
"When I got through with the Oglala, I went to Ford Island where sailors were thrashing in the water," said the tug master. "Oil from the Arizona and other ships was running down on them. The oil was burning on the water.
"Whale boats, liberty boats, anything that would float, were picking the sailors up. I got about two dozen, maybe 25, hauled them out of the water and took them over to the gasoline pier."
Next, Nakamoto went to work in the old Balboa to clear the channel of a long length of pontoon pipe. A bomb fell so close to the dredge that it almost capsized. The task of lifting the anchors of the dredge, so it could be moved out of the way, took all afternoon.
It was dark by the time he towed the dredge to McGrew Point. Everything was blacked out.
"We were almost rammed by a destroyer," Nakamoto said. He believed that sparks flying from the smokestack of the Balboa under full steam is what gave the destroyer's skipper time to avoid a collision that would have blocked the channel.
Nakamoto was born in Kaunakakai, Moloka'i. His father, a fisherman, brought the family to O'ahu. Nakamoto's daughter, Helen Wadahara, said he began throw-netting while in grade school, selling his catch of mullet in the market before he went to class.
He quit school after the eighth grade to work. His entire life was spent on or near the ocean. He lived in Manoa and died March 28 at the age of 89, survived by his wife, five sons and one daughter.