Frank Bernard

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?

My model of the USS Arizona, in wood, with great thanks to colleague Bob Tonra (RIP) who completed it ca 1996.  It’s in my home office, behind me as I type this post.

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.

I have often thought about those killed in war and wondered about lives cut short. In a prominent place in a bookcase, there is the photo I took of French monument to the war dead. It is tiny Avallon, France. A soldier in Alpine winter dress stands over the body of a fallen comrade, while stoically staring into the distance. It is the only depiction like this I’ve seen. It is very moving.

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.


8 replies
    • dickbernard
      dickbernard says:

      Thank you, Dave. As you know, we share history. I really didn’t get engaged in Frank’s history in the family till 1981, when I was 41. I’ve explored a lot about his life since then, and what I published this time was stuff I had in hand for years, but hadn’t revisited until very recently. Ross Miller probably knew Frank pretty well. They shared bedroom space, such as Army cots in the Arizona shop area pass for bedroom. Ross was a young farmer from Missouri and Frank the son of an engineer with a first grade education. They and tens of thousands of people like them did all right, I’d say, including your Dad whose story you have shared with me.

  1. Dave Thofern
    Dave Thofern says:

    Nice post, Dick. It’s good to hear the personal connection to such a monumental event. My father was a WWII B-17 gunner who was shot down and spent time as a POW. He never really wanted to talk about his wartime experiences. I regret not working harder at getting him to open up more.

    If you haven’t already read the book, “At Dawn We Slept” by Gordon Prange, I’m sure you’d find it extremely interesting. It’s an exhaustive review of the lead up to the attach on Pearl Harbor. Well written and very approachable.

  2. Jermitt Krage
    Jermitt Krage says:

    Dick: As usually I find your stories about your uncle,(as well as the other members your family very interesting.. This story, in particular was extremely interesting. I greatly appreciate the fact that you have taken time to connect with others who served on the Arizona, as well as other segments of WWII. Thank you.

    I am sharing one of several stories about my family from that period of time. As you know, I am a kid from South Dakota who has a similar history to yours, except for many of your activities relating to the Peace and Justice programs. I hope you will find this interesting as well.

    World War II – Art and Emil Krage
    It wasn’t often when Grandpa Bill was in his barbershop where there was no one else there. It was late in the afternoon when I arrived to see Grandpa Bill sitting in his barber’s chair reading the newspaper. I and some of the other kids from around town, including Pudge, Clayton, Loren, Blaine Buntrock’s and Willis Kruse and Jerry, and Bob Zastrow were looking for anything made of metal or rubber that could be used for materials for the army in World War II. One place we found had a lot of metal was the burnt-out basement of the Herther Grocery store. The store burnt down about a month ago.
    Grandpa Bill said I had two sons or my uncles who were both in the hospital during World War II with injuries. I also knew that Grandpa Bill had been following their footsteps through every possible means as the war in Europe continued. So I asked Grandpa Bill if he would share what he knew about my two uncles. He said both Uncle Art and Uncle Emil were wounded while serving in the Army during World War II and both were in the hospital in Europe before returning to the United States. Grandpa said he would continue, but he wanted me to know these stories were quite serious. I wanted to hear more, so I asked him if he would continue.
    Grandpa proceeded to tell this story. “It was on December 7, 1941, and we were all glued to the radio including you, Jermitt, although you were only eight years old. I wanted you to know how important it was for democracy to continue in this country. We were under attack from the west in a raid by Japan. There was no cheering in our household when President Franklin D Roosevelt announced that the United States had declared war on Japan. A short time later, the United States had joined the Allies and would now be fighting against Germany and the rest of the countries that made up the Axis. We all knew how serious a declaration of war would be for our country. The young men, possibly even Speed, your Dad would have to fight in a war with Japan or Germany.”

    Grandpa continued with his story. “A year later your Uncle Art who had been living and working in the State of Washington enlisted in the Army. Uncle Emil, hearing his brother had enlisted in the Army quickly followed. I know your mother’s brother, Hank also joined the Army, and your Mom’s sister Hilda’s husband was drafted, shortly after they were married. That’s all I know about your mom’s family. But you asked about my sons’ Art and Emil.” There were other men including Robert Buntrock, Darrel Cole, and Francis Larson who were drafted by the Army, while others like the Podoll boys joined the Navy. Robert Buntrock, you now was killed in Germany.”

    “Your uncle Art, after completing his basic training, was assigned to the Seventh U. S. Army. Although he wasn’t involved in some of the first battles of World War II including an operation called Operation Torch in North Africa. Your Uncle Art joins them when the 7th U.S. Army invaded Southern Sicily and captured the city of Palermo. On 15 August 1944, Seventh Army units assaulted the beaches of southern France in the St. Tropez and St. Raphael area.”

    “While in combat there, your Uncle Art was shot in his right arm and right leg. After spending four days in a military field hospital, he returned to the United States and recovered from his wounds at Walter Reed Hospital. He returned to his home in Columbia after he was discharged from the Army for a brief time before moving to Bellflower, California. Uncle Art received the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for his dedication to his country.”

    Grandpa Bill continued telling his story. “Your uncle Emil was in the infantry assigned to the Fifth Army. The Fifty Army was part of the Allied Forces that had successfully forced the German Army out of North Africa. In September 1943, Uncle Emil was assigned to The Fifth Army as part of the Northern Allied forces, landed at Salerno, Italy in Operation Avalanche against very heavy German resistance. After their success there, they traveled to the port of Naples, which was an important air site for fighter aircraft operating from Sicily. From there the Allies advanced to the western front of Italy where a fierce battle occurred in the Apennine Mountains to form a spine along the Italian peninsula. The severe winter weather caused the Fifth Army as well as Germany’s 10th Army to suspend most fighting until January 1944. It took four major offensives between January and May 1944 before the line was eventually broken by a combined assault of the Fifth and Eighth Armies (including British, American, French, Polish, and Canadian Corps) concentrated along a twenty-mile front between Monte Cassino and the western seaboard. Your Uncle Emil was part of all this. This enabled the Fifth Army to march into Rome, where there was little resistance. In the period from June to August 1944, the Allies advanced beyond Rome, taking Florence. It was during a battle on June 22, 1944, when Uncle Emil was shot in his left arm and shoulder and his right hand by a machine gun. He remained in a hospital in Naples for six months and another seven months in the Billings Hospital in Indiana. Emil received a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for his service in World War II. Following his discharge from the Army, Your Uncle Emil worked at a General Motors Assembly Plant in Long Beach. California. In 1949 he returned to Columbia he bought and operated the High-Grade Service Station. In addition, you know he was the rural mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service”

    “Your uncle Emil is a great storyteller and a pretty good tennis player,” Grandpa said.

    I felt very patriotic, knowing that I and some of the other boys from around Columbia, SD had been saving rubber and metals for the war.

    • dickbernard
      dickbernard says:

      A very moving story. I’m a long-time Vet for Peace, and as anyone from the local organization would likely attest, I am not a purist on the issue of war, most recently Ukraine. War is always a losing proposition, most always for both sides. At the same time, evil exists and has to be dealt with, and we aren’t without sin ourselves, as you know – start with how we treated native Americans and blacks and brown skinned people…. There are loads of people who answered the call. Not everyone returned. Thanks so much for the commentary.


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