Today is the 81st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Dad’s brother, my Uncle Frank, was one of those killed aboard the USS Arizona.
Best I know, at this writing, there are only two USS Arizona survivors still living. Frank died at 26, he would be 107 if still alive. He would have been a relatively senior crew man on the ship.
Uncle Frank has been a frequent subject at this space. Enter search words Pearl Harbor and you’ll find over 60 posts going back to 2009. Many of these were full posts, the primary dozen or so on or near December 7. Most reference Uncle Frank.
Today’s post is unique, with all new content, specifically material from people who were on the Arizona or at Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, at least two who remember Frank as colleagues on the ship, one of them in the same work group, living/working in the same part of the ship.
What follows is information from personal interviews or letters from colleague sailors from 1982 to 1997. Those who shared information with me were all seamen at Pearl Harbor Dec 7, 1941, (included is the date of their communication with me): Ross Miller, Harrisonville MO, ship fitter on the USS Arizona 1936-40 (Dec 1993 letter and 3-7-94 in-person interview); Guy Flanagan, St. Paul MN, a young Ensign who came aboard the Arizona a few months before Dec. 7 (9-17-82 in person); Vincent (Jim) Vlach, Riverside CA, seaman assigned to Executive Office of the Arizona for most of the time between 1936 and December 7 (letter 6-14-92); Chris Stapleton, Rochester MN, a survivor of the sinking of the USS Oklahoma which was near the Arizona (letter 7-11-97); and Charley Walters, Minneapolis, a Seaman on the USS Phoenix, a cruiser berthed near the Arizona which survived, later sold to Argentina, later renamed the General Belgrano, and sunk May, 1982, in the Falkland War with England. 323 died (5-20-82 in person).
Here is one of many photos I have of Uncle Frank. It is undated, certainly in Honolulu, which in 1940 had about 250,000 population, today about a million.
I had provided this photo and other materials about Frank to all of those listed above. From Jim Vlach: “The more I look at the picture of Frank holding the pineapples…I realize that I do recognize him.”
Jim was one of the office personnel who would deal with sailors for various reasons, such as shore leave and personnel records. (In my own Army days I was a Company Clerk – the same kind of duty as Jim.)
The below comments reflect the thoughts of the seamen I heard from.
The Crew of the Arizona: The crew was young men “from 18-30”, according to Ross Miller. Guy Flanagan, a young ensign assigned to the Arizona a few months before Dec 7, said that there was constant turnover, as the Arizona was a ship which did a lot of training of new seamen.
Vlach said “The 1177 KIA [killed in action]…represented 78% of the [Arizona] crew & about 1/2 the casualties suffered by the U.S. on Dec 7th 1941.”
The history: It is easy to forget that before Dec. 7, the nation was not at war.
Pearl Harbor marked the entrance of the U.S. into WWII. War also contributed to the end of the Great Depression, and the resulting war-time economy and accompanying restrictions.
Chris Stapleton said of Navy service: “I appreciated the food as I had joined the USN in July, 1940 because I was jobless, broke and hungry. Many other sailors of the 1930s preferred shipboard life to being an unemployed civilian.”
Uncle Frank had in fact been part of a CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) crew at Medora ND before being accepted for the Navy in 1935.
Vlach: “Frank’s sacrifice helped to awaken this sleeping country of ours from its isolationist viewpoint. Members of the crew were from every state, some from Guam, Canada, the Philippines & one from China.”
Stapleton remembered shore leave and the Iolani Palace because “it had an iron picket fence” as shown in the photo.
“Those choice looking pineapples reminded me of another favorite liberty spot in Honolulu – the Dole canning plant. Sailors could go there and drink all the pineapple juice they could hold – free!”
Of course, certainly sailors sought out other entertainment on shore leave….
The three I interviewed in person all remembered that talk at the time was that there was trouble ahead, without knowing any specifics. This would be normal scuttlebutt. Military men do not command themselves, and do whatever order comes their way from the next level up. There apparently weren’t many premonitions about Pearl Harbor being attacked, even though Pearl was packed with U.S. warships which were all sitting ducks. Everyone apparently thought Pearl Harbor was easy to defend, and they were out of range of any enemy.
We tend to forget in these days how primitive communications were even in 1941. Hindsight says that command all the way up was naive. I think the U.S. was just acting on the basis of what they knew, which was much less than today.
Aboard the Ship: Ross Miller, who both wrote me and I interviewed in person at his home in Missouri, actually was in the same unit aboard ship as Uncle Frank from mid 1938-40. He came aboard the Arizona in May 1937. From his letter in 1993:
“I was in carpenter shop and Frank your uncle was ship fitting shop in the same division (R). ship repair and damage control. He worked with metal welding, replacing gaskets on hatch and doors watertight…air test and general upkeep. Similar to a blacksmith. I was what they called a wood butcher or carpenter. Boat repair and general maintenance. Frank was 3/C (third class) and I was [also] 3/C. He had 2/C before I was discharged in December 13, 1940, at Bremerton WA…His living quarters was 2nd deck between #1 an #2 turret on port side. We sleep on army cots in the workshop…Your uncle was very personable person although I can’t put everything together. We had lots of sports and movies on quarter deck or on fantail. Your uncle was well liked and enjoyed himself and others. We always had a coffee pot on in ship fitting shop. Our clothes locker was about 2 ft by 3 ft and you had a sea bag which stored on third deck. Our general quarters station was on third deck ammunition…We stood watch in fresh water hole…Our battle station was on third deck.”
What lay ahead? Frank Bernards Future. Jim Vlach recommended an excellent book, which I refer to often: “Arizona, An Illustrated History” by Paul Stillwell. The book has an immense amount of detail, including where the ship was, except for November through Dec. 7, 1941, which records went down with the ship.
During Frank Bernard’s time aboard the Arizona, the most common ports of call were San Pedro (near Long Beach), Puget Sound (Bremerton WA) and Pearl Harbor.
Until August 12, 1931, when it transited the Panama Canal into the Pacific, the warship had basically been on the east coastal area of the U.S. Much of the then-American fleet went to the Pacific at the same time as the Arizona.
The book records that 21 October 1940 through 19 January 1941, the Arizona was at Puget Sound, Bremerton, Washington, probably for routine maintenance and updating.
On November 7, 1941, about 10 months after Bremerton and one month before December 7, Uncle Frank typewrote a letter to his brother, my Dad, which appears in its entirety here: Bernard Frank Nov 7 1941. Note especially the second paragraph, about “the little girl up in Washington”.
I have always wondered who “the little girl up in Washington” was…. And as people and as a nation and world have we learned any enduring lessons in the succeeding 81 years?
POSTNOTE: Unrelated new post about Labor Relations published yesterday. Of course, I’m well aware of the action at Congress yesterday honoring the Capitol Police; and the election results last night in Georgia. We have a lot to learn. Are we open to learning?
COMMENTS: (more at end of post)
from Fred: Always enjoy reading about your uncle. He was about the same age of my three uncles who served in WW2, two in the army and one in the navy. They all returned and led long and productive lives.
from Dennis: On our first visit to Hawaii a few decades ago, Nickie and I added a stop-over on Oahu so that we could spend some time at Pearl Harbor – a very important part of our nation’s history. A significant portion of our visit was spent at the Arizona Memorial – a very sad tribute to so many lost lives. Thanks for sharing about your uncle.