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Fearlessness and Forged Signatures

My late grandmother Eleanor Agnes Fazzone Stanton, she of the bird legs and long nose I inherited, was born on December 7, 1914. A day that would eventually live in infamy. Today marks the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt exhorted Americans that they had nothing to fear but fear itself.

Nana encouraged a similar fearlessness in me, particularly in the dozens of letters she wrote me every year of my life. Until those final years when dementia crept in and then soon cloaked the spry nana that I once knew. Friends and the verses of songs stayed wrapped around her mind’s spindle, but her awareness of the present came completely unspooled.

Her handwriting started to look wobbly. The letters she sent decreased in frequency, the inside containing a pre-printed message, signed with her wobbly name.

I pulled away. I made no effort to visit her after she fell and broke her hip and spent months recovering in the hospital. She moved in with my uncle. Occasionally I sent letters with pictures of my daughter. I feared seeing her, I feared the feelings of helplessness that would accompany seeing her. I could not help this frail woman who had sat with me watching daytime television and making me tea when I was home from school, vomiting into buckets.

I wanted to cryogenically freeze my memories of her and let time do no harm to my impression of Nana.

I eventually got over myself. I went to visit her twice before she passed away. She sat in the living room of my uncle’s home where she smiled sweetly and nodded her head at my baby and occasionally hummed songs from memory. The final moments of happiness for my 94 year-old grandmother, crystallized by my six month-old daughter.

Two years later I was watching the ancestry program “Who Do You Think You Are?”. The celebrity accounts moved me in a way that reality television never does. The star’s searches netted them personal interviews with distant relatives, visits to slave plantations and European cemeteries. And while we cannot all finance a DNA consult with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., something they all seemed to echo about newfound identity –ascertaining who one was in the context of ancestry—spoke to me.

I had always desired the standard-issue answers about my stock: places of origin, dates, names, jobs, from where I inherited this impossibly round chin. I wanted to mine the raw facts, unmuddled by oral tradition, unsullied by personal agendas. I sought the hard documents, whatever public record could offer me, anything that had not been lost in translation.

So I joined like the program touted, and my digital dig began. The initial phase of my search was rapid. Cousins once and twice-removed had already paved some of the way for my search. The software will gamely connect names and dates and relationships based largely on census records, and within a few days I had connected more than a few stars in my family’s constellation.

But the thing about geneology is that the grid of names and dates is never enough. I hungered for an artifact, some small piece d’ resistance that could speak volumes about whatever it was I was supposed to learn about my family and myself.

There was a romance to excavating all the pieces, even from the online archives. My search expanded. I e-mailed with distant cousins whom I’d never met, whom I may still never meet. I foraged through the Latter-Day Saints’ database. I purchased memberships to newspaper archives. The weeks turned into months, and my desk turned into a rat’s nest made of scraps of paper with family tree branches scrawled on both sides.

As my family tree solidified, two things became abundantly clear: That which I could find would surprise me. That which I couldn’t find would not. I learned that search entries were not always so cut and dry. Census takers estimated ages. Newspapers fudged facts. My grandmother forged her maiden name.

When I found my Nana’s perfect Catholic schoolgirl penmanship lopping off the whole second half of her maiden name on her marriage license and then again on the affidavit for the county records, I felt the weight of her secret. Did she fear discrimination of her Italian surname when she married in Kansas City, Missouri in the early 1940s? Was she trying to create a new identity as she settled with my grandfather in Nashville, TN. Had she already disinherited her late father, whom I also learned my great grandmother attempted to divorce for “cruel and barbarous treatment” per another snippet from the New Castle News?

As the oldest of my siblings and cousins, I have always stood at the edge of the forest where the mighty trees are established or felled, and where the little saplings are trying to take root. There is never a steady rain of information from the canopy, only sporadic droplets of memories and news that I work hard to shield from my siblings and cousins when I am able.

I thought tracing my family roots would allow me to finally funnel all those droplets from the canopy above. Instead of being a passive reception, though, it became more of an exercise of writing a love letter to the ones I would come to know through the archives, and to those that would read what I had exhumed. Dear Family of the Past. I don’t know what kind of stunts you pulled, but you’re interesting and I love you. Thank you for making it possible for me to be here, learning about you. Dear Family of the Present and Future. Thanks for understanding my need to figure all this out. I’m getting closer. I hope you are, too.

As Pearl Harbor Day passes again this year, F.D.R.’S words echo resoundingly against fear as we approach our future, but also as we engage the stories of our past, personal, public, or otherwise. The ink that penned these stories might be difficult to decipher, but the messages of love and fearlessness are unmistakable.

Nana, Baby, Me

My Dad, Jack

Jackson Parker Centers, my dad, was born in 1918, and joined the US Navy in 1937.  He was first assigned to the battleship USS Oklahoma, and was still aboard when the ship was tied at Pearl.  Dad didn’t speak much about the attack because he lost many friends aboard, but what he did say, enhanced by news articles and military records speak much about the man who was my father.

He had just finished breakfast and was relaxing in his bunk when the alarm of the attack blared out.  Apparently it was not the standard “This is not a drill,” because he would never assault his daughter’s innocent ears with exactly what was said.  The first thing he did do was go to his locker to grab a pack of cigarettes.  Then while running to his station he was startled to see a torpedo heading midship.

There were five men at his station when the Oklahoma was dealt her fatal blow and the ship turned upside down looking to all viewing from above like a beached whale.  The men fought to climb up to the bottom of the ship for the water line and available air, having to wrench open the heavy metal doors to get there.  For two days, up to their necks in water and oil they fought for survival.  My dad had taken off his belt and used the buckle to pound on the inside of the hull to alert those on the outside of their whereabouts.  Finally, on Tuesday morning, December 2, 1941, at approximately 2:30 in the morning, hearing my dad’s banging, men in a passing boat found the men.  They were cut out of the hull by the light of the burning Arizona.  And I am told, a torch could not be used because it could set fire to the oil in the water, so another method was use.  Unfortunately, by the time they were able to reach the men, only two of the five remained alive, my dad and a mate.  Dad was the last of only 32 survivors from the USS Oklahoma.

The folks at home had no idea of dad’s fate for about six weeks.  He went from the Oklahoma to the military hospital for an unknown length of time.  His girlfriend, my mother, and his dad checked frequently at the local post office for any news.

In 1943, after Mom finally agreed to marry dad, they became one when he was on military leave that year.  Dad lived to fight other close calls in that war.  I was born in 1947.

I can’t imagine the horror it must have felt like to be 23 years old, sinking with your ship and the struggle to survive, men dying around you.  I don’t know if I could have handled it.  But it gave dad the philosophy that each new day of life was a gift.  Dad passed in 1993. 

Thank you to all veterans of all wars who fight to preserve our blessed way of life

Terry Strick

Carroll Joseph Oliver, USN, Retired

My son joined the Navy in 1989.  In 1991, the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, I asked my uncle — who had been there — to write a memoir of the event for my son.  This is what my uncle had to say about December 7, 1941.

written by Carroll Joseph Oliver, USN, Retired (The Oliver family lived in Haddonfield, New Jersey; “Uncle Ollie” was born October 10, 1919.)

I enlised in the Navy on February 1, 1937.  I was 18 years old.  I was trained to be a shipfitter and the first ship I was stationed on was the West Virginia.  I was then transferred to the Pennsylvania.

December 7 began like any other Sunday morning: I got up, showered, dressed, ate breakfast and left my ship, the Pennsylvania, for the Block Recreation Center, where we were going to hear Mass.  When I got there, the stage was set up for Mass.  Suddenly the Chaplain ran out onto the stage and hollered that everyone should immediately return to their ship or station.  We didn’t know what was going on, and I hung around for a few minutes before going outside.  When I got outside, I could see the Jap planes coming over from Hickam Field.  They were strafing everyone who was running back towards the Fleet Landing and Receiving Station.  I waited a few minutes, then started running myself.  Excuse the comparison, but Jesse Owens would be put to shame the way I ran.  I passed quite a few sailors, their white uniforms torn and bloody, lying dead on the sidewalk.  I saw men with all different types of guns on the roof of the Receiving Station firing away at the oncoming planes.  I somehow made it to the Receiving Station and to the officer’s living area (where the officers had their homes).  This whole area had been bombed, and I thought a few bombs had been dropped right in front of the admiral’s house.

I crawled into a large storm pipe (the pipe that carried away run-off rain water) that extended on either side of the drive that circled the area.  I kept crawling through this pipe to the end and saw Mr. Ensign Arnold, who was an officer on the Pennsy.  I have to laugh about it now, because the situation was so desperate, and there he was with the back seam of his khaki pants split open.  He and I continued running towards the Pennsy.  Our ship was in dry dock.  At this point, the air around the harbor was actually black from the shots being fired at the enemy planes.  In the harbor itself, I could see the USS Oklahome turning over, with her bottom pointed towards the sky.

When I got to the Pennsy, I immediately reported to my battle station which was under the armoured deck.  I believe the deck itself was about six inches thick.  Before I had gotten back to the ship, the Pennsy had been hit with a 500 pound aerial bomb, killing many of my shipmates.  Repairs began immediately and we had to bypass the broken piping.  This was necessary becuse the bomb had severed all the pipes that had supplied the Pennsy with water.  Our repair officer gave me and three other shipfitters orders to make immediate arrangements to place submersible pumps out and over the caisson to get water for fire fighting, machinery, guns, etc.

Because there had been a change of plans, the Pennsy was moved out of dry dock, and the USS Cassin and USS Downs were placed forward in the dry dock and then they put the Pennsy back in.  The two destroyers who were with us (Cassin and Downs) as well as the Pennsy were back up on blocks.  I myself think this move saved the Pennsy, because after being in dry dock the Pennsy would have been moved back over to Battleship Row on December 6.

While we worked frantically making repairs, the hospital corpsmen were removing the dead and taking care of the wounded.  It was a scene straight out of Dante’s Inferno.  Lt. Commander Craig was the head of my repair department.  I believe he was the only officer from the Pennsy killed on December 7.  When the attack began, he was on the dry dock wall checking the utilities: steam, water and air.  All three of these are needed for the machinery, etc. on board the ship.  Fresh water and harbor water were much needed for fire fighting.  That was the purpose of our going on the dry dock caisson: to get water aboard.

Hours later, when we finally did secure from general quarters, I returned to my living space and locker, still wearing my whites.  You can imagine what condition they were in.  If I remember correctly, I threw them away.  My most vivid memory of the attack was the condition of our living space.  There had been many dead and wounded in a collecting station nearby, and the angle iron (similar to a baseboard) caused all the blood to drain onto the deck of our living space.  There must have been two inches of blood on the deck.  I was then a young man at the time and my appetite was gone for quite a few days afterwards.  To this day I cannot erase that scene from my memory.  I knew everyone from the Pennsy who was killed on December 7, but on board ship you go ashore with other men from the same division.

This may sound funny, but believe me, at the time I jumped about ten feet in the air.  In our ship area we kept our bedding and cots in what the Navy calls ‘hammock netting.’  In some division, they were outboard in the living compartments and they just dropped canvas over them, but in the shipfitter’s shop, ours were heavy galvanized metal.  Someone went to get his bedding and cot and dropped the cover.  It sounded like another bomb going off and everyone in the area was ready for general quarters all over again.

We got the Pennsy squared away in just a few weeks and left for San Francisco.  When we arrived in San Francisco, I believe it was New Year’s Eve.  I left the Pennsy in 1943 after being in the Aleutian Islands.  The Bering Sea surrounding the Aleutian Islands is the roughest water I’ve ever sailed on.

The bell from the Pennsy was on display and the ship’s silverware was used for the Officer’s Ward Room Mess on the new Pennsy, which is a nuke sub. The ship’s bell from the USS Cassin is in the Navy Reserve Building in the shipyard at Philadelphia.  Both of these destroyers were scrpped after they salvaged what could be used on other ships like them or in the same class.

Close Call

My Uncle James Gunter and his two best friends, brothers Charles and Melvin Murdock were from Grove Oak a little town in northern, Alabama.  They were wet behind the ears teenagers who were filled with excitement at he prospect of seeing the world. They enlisted at the same time and ironically were all stationed on the USS Arizona. In late November 1941 my uncle found out that he was being transferred to Pensacola, Florida, but was going to go home on leave first. He caught his ride to the states on Tuesday December 2nd, 1941, but before leaving the ship bought a postcard with a picture of the USS Arizona and mailed it to his family back home. He said goodbye to his two buddies Charles and Melvin never realizing that would be the last time he would ever see them again. Both brothers were killed on the USS Arizona on Dec. 7th 1941.

As for me, I was always fascinated as a child by the picture postcard  with the one cent George Washington stamp that my grandmother kept in a basket on her dresser, and the story she would tell about how my uncle narrowly missed coming home in December of 1941, so much so that she gave it to me and today it is one of my prized posessions.

Late Arrival to Pearl Harbor

My father, Jack Pearce Jones, was living in Hemphill, TX on Dec.6, 1941.  He was a lineman for the telephone company which his father owned and my mother was the operator. They were married on December 7, 1940.  At some point on Dec. 7, 1942 my mother and father went home to eat and my grandparents were both home.  My grandfather was the recruiting officer for three counties.  He told my parents about the attack and asked my father which  branch of the service he was going to join.  As my father told me he was not too anxious to go to any war but was convinced it was his duty. He joined the Navy and was at Pearl in three weeks. H said they could smell the steanch of the dead before they got inside the harbor.  He said it was totoal bedlam.  A lot of the service people were still in shock and confused.  My father was given a job removing bodies.  When the officers found out he had been a telephone lineman they made him the dispatcher at the harbor.  The harbor was mined and each ship coming in had to be identified which became his job. He said they told him NOT to mess up.  He was later transferred to a mine sweeper in the Pacific until the end of the war.  Daughter, Carol Jones Couvillion

Pearl Harbor Stories: A Day in the Life of a 13 year old

She always got up early to have breakfast with her Dad.  That Sunday was no different.  Blanche and her Dad, Louis, were having a quiet breakfast in the kitchen while the rest of the family slept.  Then, oddly, there were planes flying down the gulch behind the house outside the window.  Her Dad said that they were Japanese Zeros and jumped up and ran to the phone in the living room.  He called Pearl Harbor Naval Base where he worked as a carpenter and told the guy that answered the phone that there was at least a squadron of Japanese Zeros on their way to Pearl.  The guy on the phone told Louis to go sober up and hung up on him.  The air in the living room turned blue as Louis cursed at the phone operator and watched in horror as the first bombs began dropping on Pearl Harbor.  

Blanche was just 13 years old that Sunday and the life that she had known ended that day.  As she sat at the table in the kitchen, she could see the faces of the Japanese pilots as they flew past the kitchen window.  When her Dad was on the phone she leapt to the front kitchen window and also witnessed the bombs dropping on Pearl Harbor.  At first she didn’t quite realize what she was seeing, but when an bomb struck the Arizona, she saw the bow of the ship rise up out of the water as the ship blew apart.  She understood that Hawaii was being attached.  Later she would grasp the bigger picture that America was being attached but for now, her home was under attach and she was afraid.   She could see men jumping off of ships all over the Harbor trying to avoid being burned or drowned as the ships burned or went down.  She could see the flames in the water and the fierce black smoke from the stricken ships.  Soon and mercifully, that thick black smoke would blot out her view from the kitchen window.    Slowly, the sounds of explosions diminished but the acrid smell of fuel oil burning remained and the sun was blotted out.

By mid morning another strange thing was going on.  Women and children were trudging up the hill from down below.  People were all around the normally secluded farmstead.  Apparently, the officers housed in Aiea at McGrew housing, had told their families to take cover in the hills surrounding Pearl Harbor.   They, like everyone on Oahu, were expecting landing craft and an invading army to come ashore at any moment.  These families remained camped on the property for the better part of a week after the attach.  Blanche and her family sharing what they had with them.

Blanche never returned to the plantation school she had been attending in Aiea.  Her Dad insisted that she and her siblings go to school in downtown Honolulu after December 7th.  She didn’t go to school for more than three weeks.  When she did get back to school, she learned how to don a gas mask and evacuate the school building to a trench dug in the school yard during air raid drills.  She learned how to search the skies for zeros and the beaches for landing craft.   She heard the stories of what Pearl Harbor was like after the smoke  had clouded her view; of the hell of coffins stacked up on the piers.  She could smell for herself the awful smell of death as it wafted on the trade winds.  She watched, stunned, as neighbors and friends were rounded up and sent to undisclosed internment camps.  It would be decades before she knew where some of them had gone, others she would never know.

A little more than a year later, Blanches’ beloved father would pass away leaving her devastated and adrift.  Her mother would struggle to keep the farm and the family together.  Blanche would grow older and in time become a chronological adult, but the reality was that she became an adult on December 7th 1941.

Blanche was a Pearl Harbor survivor and she was my Mom.  We talked often and at length about what she witnessed and what her life was like after that dreadful day.  Some memories were funny, some were sad but all were colored in the hues of human suffering from that day forward.  This is just some of her story.