KINGMAN – It’s been 75 years since the air raid alarm sounded aboard the battleship USS Arizona, signaling Japan’s devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that would thrust the United States into World War II and forever link the state of Arizona to the “Day of Infamy.”
Shortly before 8 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese dive-bombers struck the Arizona as she lay in port at Pearl Harbor awaiting maintenance, and in the following waves of attack, sunk or damaged 21 ships in the U.S. Pacific Fleet and destroyed military bases defending the harbor.
It was determined the Arizona took two direct hits, including an 800-kilogram bomb that penetrated the deck and exploded in the black powder magazine. A cataclysmic explosion ripped through the forward part of the ship, touching off fierce fires that burned for two days.
There were 1,512 men on board the Arizona, and 1,177 of them lost their lives when the ship sank at her berth alongside Ford Island. It was nearly half of the 2,400 casualties suffered by the entire fleet that day.
Thomas Mayhew, chief petty officer in the U.S. Navy from Glendale, understands the deep significance of Pearl Harbor Day. He’s serving as a jet engine mechanic aboard the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier, and is in Pearl Harbor today for the 75th anniversary memorial.
“For one, it’s part of Navy legacy,” Mayhew said Monday in a telephone interview with the Daily Miner. “It’s part of being a sailor. Especially when you come to the Pearl Harbor memorial, you know there’s 1,177 people still down there.”
The sinking of the USS Arizona remains one of the more iconic World War II photos, and more than 1 million people visit USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor each year.
Mayhew, who joined the Navy 17 years ago to follow in his father’s footsteps, said he’s been to Pearl Harbor a few times and likes to visit museums and points of interest such as the USS Missouri memorial.
Pearl Harbor remains an inspiration for Mayhew and his fellow sailors, and reminds him of the sacrifices made on that fateful day.
“I think it’s very important. I think it’s a cornerstone of the foundation of our war history in the United States and so many things came out of that,” he said. “Production, housing. It was a huge part of America … not reinventing itself, but starting over. We just got through the Great Depression. The war is a pivotal part of American history.”
There were many acts of heroism on the part of Arizona’s officers and men, according to historical accounts. Samuel Fuqua, the ship’s first lieutenant and senior surviving officer on board, was awarded the Medal of Honor for trying to quell the fires and get survivors off the ship.
Sgt. John Baker, a survivor of the battleship’s Marine detachment, later recounted that Fuqua’s calmness “gave me courage, and I looked around to see if I could help.”
Posthumous Medal of Honor awards went to Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd, the first flag officer to be killed in the Pacific war, and to Capt. Franklin van Valkenburgh, who reached the bridge and was attempting to fight for his ship when the bomb hit on the magazines and destroyed her.
“It seems like so long ago and there aren’t many survivors, but it’s important to show our appreciation for their sacrifices and service,” said Lt. Commander Jessica Reed of Tucson, also aboard the USS Stennis.
“It’s a reminder of our history, both as a country and being a naval person, it’s a very significant part of our naval heritage,” she continued. “We’ll never forget the sacrifices that were made.”
Sam Cox, director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, said the crew of the Arizona was fighting back instantly after the surprise attack, firing anti-aircraft guns so fast the ammunition couldn’t keep up.
Japanese bombs hit the ship at just the right spot to detonate the forward magazine’s massive explosion, he added.
“Basically it was a lucky hit,” Cox said as he prepared for today’s events commemorating the attack. “The Arizona suffered the most loss of life, and 1,103 men were entombed in the ship and never recovered.”
Pearl Harbor Day recognizes a day of incredible sacrifices by men and women who served at that time, Cox said. While he doesn’t know the exact number, he estimated only 100 to 200 survivors of Pearl Harbor are still living. About 500 World War II veterans die each day.
“I think there’s a sense that this is our last chance to say goodbye to the survivors,” he added. “There probably won’t be any left at the 80th anniversary.”
Lt. Commander Reed, who supervises about 40 sailors on the Stennis, said she wanted to perform a public service and embark on a career with a lot of traveling when she joined the Navy 12 years ago.
It’s her fourth visit to Hawaii, and it’s always special, she said. The museums and memorials give her a thorough appreciation of the history behind Pearl Harbor Day.
What does it teach her?
“I would say the grit of the sailors when we visit the Arizona memorial and hear about the stories of what they did to keep our forces alive after such a significant blow,” Reed said. “It’s a true testament to the resiliency of sailors. They still kept fighting even after that day with so many losses.”