When the USS Arizona exploded and sank during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 80 years ago, brothers died with brothers, childhood friends with childhood friends, a father with his son.
Some of the men were seasoned sailors. Many were teenagers, including several who lied about their age at enlistment because they were too young to serve.
Now profiles of all 1,177 sailors and Marines have been compiled for the first time by a Tucson woman who spent more than five years researching their stories.
Bobbie Jo Buel has written profiles of all 1,177 sailors and Marines who died on the USS Arizona.
Former Arizona Daily Star Editor Bobbie Jo Buel scoured newspaper archives and public records, collected snapshots and personal letters and tracked down relatives of the men.
Her work began in May of 2016 with Joseph John Borovich, a 22-year-old seaman first class from Central California who was rejected by the Navy because of blurred vision but kept coming back to the recruiting depot until they took him in July 1940.
Buel finished the last profile on Sept. 22 of this year — a bare-bones sketch, stitched together with Navy records and census reports, of 22-year-old Boilermaker Second Class Harold Richard Mathein from Illinois.
Buel was in talks earlier this year to make all of the stories available through an easily searchable smartphone app, so visitors to the USS Arizona Mall Memorial could stand in the outline of the ship and read about the men whose names are engraved on bronze medallions just east of Old Main on the University of Arizona campus.
That agreement recently fell through, so she has been reposting the stories on social media — one every 30 minutes — while she looks for another permanent home for them.
By Dec. 14, all 1,177 profiles should be available on the USS Arizona Mall Memorial’s Facebook page.
These guys deserve to have their stories told, Buel said. “My goal is just to have the information shared widely.”
The Detroit four
Even before the attack, a surprising number of Arizona crewmen were already bonded by blood or history.
Of the 1,514 men assigned to the ship, Buel estimates close to 200 had relatives or friends from back home on board with them.
According to the National Park Service, caretaker of the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, Machinist Mate First Class Thomas Augusta Free, 50, and his son, Seaman Second Class William Thomas Free, 17, both died on the ship, as did 23 sets of brothers.
Buel said the list of casualties also includes cousins, uncles, nephews and best friends, many of whom enlisted, served and then died together.
A story that sticks with her more than most involves four teenagers who enlisted together at a Navy recruiting office in Detroit on a snowy day in November 1940. One of the boys, Chester John Miller, was just 15 at the time, but he was allowed to sign up anyway.
Miller, Clarence W. Lipke, Charles W. McClelland and Byrl Eugene King trained together at Great Lakes Naval Station 30 miles north of Chicago, and all four ended up on ships anchored at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Miller and Lipke, both firemen second class, died on the Arizona. King, on the battleship Nevada, and McClelland, on the light cruiser Helena, survived the attack, though McClelland was hurled in the air by a torpedo blast and broke his leg.
McClelland was still aboard the Helena when it was sunk in the South Pacific in July 1943. His life raft carried him to an island held by the Japanese, where the locals hid him and his crewmates for a week until they were picked up by Navy destroyers.
Buel added details about the men to spreadsheets as she went, so she could better understand not just the individuals but the collective story they told as a crew.
Many of the Arizona men were also connected by shared hardship. They were children of the Great Depression for whom the Navy offered an escape from poverty made worse, in a startling number of cases, by family tragedy.
Buel said nearly a quarter of the men lost one or both parents before the age of 18. At least 6% saw their parents divorced — a figure almost certainly underreported but still three times the national rate in 1940.
Buel also tracked the size of the communities the crew members came from. She said as many as half of them grew up on farms or in towns with populations of less than 1,514.
“In other words, the Arizona was the biggest place they’d ever lived,” she said.
As she researched the story of Vincent “Tommy” Thomas and Lloyd Bryant, two lifelong best friends who enlisted together from rural Illinois, Buel discovered among the Arizona’s dead two more young men, Edward Smith and Joe McGlasson, from the same small county.
“Five thousand people (in all of Greene County, Illinois), and you just lost four guys. And that was day one of the war,” Buel said. “For a lot of families in small towns, it was an even greater loss than we kind of understand.”
Seaman Second Class James Randolf Van Horn was the only Tucsonan lost on the battleship that day.
The 17-year-old had never seen the ocean before, but he dropped out of Tucson High School to join the Navy. He requested the Arizona because it represented his home state.
In an interview with the Tucson Daily Citizen in 1958, his mother, Bonnie Cope, said her son decided to enlist after attending a recruiting talk at Tucson High by Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd in the spring of 1941.
Kidd later died on the Arizona, right along with the Tucson teenager he inspired to join him there.
The research project began as a companion piece for the USS Arizona Mall Memorial, which Buel’s husband, David Carter, designed at the UA.
At the time, Buel figured someone had already compiled the men’s stories. She just needed to find whoever did the work and get permission to share it.
She planned to spend the first two weeks of her retirement from the Star pulling the information together so it would be ready to go when the memorial was dedicated a few days before the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.
Then she discovered that there was no existing collection. At least some of the sailors and Marines had never been profiled before. Their names were etched in marble at the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, but their histories had gone untold.
She would have to do it herself.
“I joke about it now, but I never would have started if I had known it was going to be five plus years,” Buel said. “I have library cards now from the New York Public Library, the L.A. Public Library, the North Dakota State archive. I mean I’ve been to the state archives in Oklahoma, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, New York state, California, Kansas. It’s 20 something states we’ve been to.”
The search took her and her husband to major cities and tiny towns to scan reels of microfilm or comb through bound copies of old newspapers in search of obituaries. She couldn’t just page through the December 1941 editions, either. Some families weren’t notified that their loved ones were dead until months later.
“I think with common names, (the notifications) took longer in some cases,” Buel said. “And there were also just a shocking number of mistakes made at first. There were families who were told your guy is dead. Oh, no, your guy’s alive. Oh, no, he is dead.”
Online resources like Ancestry.com and Newspapers.com provided crucial leads. When the internet failed her, Buel said she would mail letters to still-living family members of the men or “cold-call” small-town libraries or the local American Legion or VFW post.
Along the way, she recruited friends and fellow researchers to track down stories of the men, and she forged friendships with some of the strangers who helped her.
“It was a big network,” she said.
When a group of former reporters volunteered to help, Buel handed them a few of her toughest files. “OK, retired journalists, let’s see how you do,” she recalled with a laugh.
About a dozen of the profiles were researched and written by the relatives themselves, who took on the task as a way to learn more about their family histories.
Eager for some early successes, Buel began with the men she thought would be the easiest to find — the ones with unique names or from small towns, where their deaths would earn big write-ups in the local paper.
“I think there were like 10 guys on the ship whose last name was Jones — Harold Jones, John Jones — and was I like, ‘OK, I’m not starting there,’” she said.
The ones she couldn’t find anything on went into what she called “the dead man file,” Buel said. “Sick journalism humor.”
That file gradually emptied, as she refined her searches and got better at knowing where to find what she was looking for.
Her technique improved so much that she later went back and reviewed all the work she had done over the first 18 months or so to flesh out as many of the portraits as she could.
Some of the hardest to track down, at least early on, were the crewmen of color, who were often disrespected in death by the same institutions that disrespected them in life.
“If you were Black or from Guam or the Philippines, you could only join a branch called the messmen. They were basically like servants,” Buel said. “They couldn’t get promoted, it was the lowest pay and it didn’t matter what their skills were.
“It still just boggles my mind that you would put your life on the line for a country that treats you like that,” she said.
For Black crew members whose deaths got little to no mainstream media coverage, she turned to newspapers run by and for the African American communities in places like Memphis, Tennessee, and elsewhere.
For some Filipino crew members, she combed through the applications they filled out to become U.S. citizens — a treasure trove of biographical information, once she discovered that such records were publicly available.
The newspaper in Guam didn’t publish anything about the Arizona’s dead at first, “because Guam was invaded like nine hours after Pearl Harbor was attacked, and it wasn’t taken back by the Americans until the summer of ’44,” Buel said. “I don’t think the families of the guys from Guam even knew they were dead until then.”
In the years after the war, though, the island’s lost Arizona crewmen began to show up in the newspaper there as part of Pearl Harbor anniversary tributes or the obituaries for their relatives.
Despite Buel’s best efforts, some of the finished profiles remain frustratingly thin.
“There was one guy, I found literally two (documents) about him,” she said. “I know from the final muster roll the date he enlisted, and I know, of course, what his position was on the ship. And I know the name of the woman he married. That is all I know about him.”
Buel searched for the man’s wife but never found her.
“So there were a few like that, where it’s like I wrote three sentences,” she said.
Others fill up more than a page — rich portraits brimming with color from old newspaper accounts, the firsthand recollections of relatives and, in some cases, the men’s own words, preserved in letters to their loved ones.
Sailor Walter Hamilton Simon wrote often to his ailing father and teen-aged sister in New Jersey, starting with a note he jotted on the back of the “Oath of Allegiance” after he enlisted in Philadelphia on Oct. 16, 1940.
A year later, on board the Arizona in November 1941, the 23-year-old wrote to his family about a friend who was really homesick. “I was that way for a long time myself,” Simon says in his letter, “but now I just grin and bear it, because I know that I’ll be home with you at my first possible chance.”
Buel ended up with about 10 sets of letters penned by Arizona crew members. With all 1,177 profiles now finally finished, she has arranged to turn the correspondence over to UA Libraries’ Special Collections, where it will be added to an extensive historical archive from the state’s namesake battleship.
She said the letters home offer a window into the lives of the men on the Arizona and their growing anxiety about the approach of war.
“They know it’s getting serious. There are guys who write about being on watch at night, and the burden of feeling responsible for the lives of 1,500 people who are on that ship with (them),” Buel said.
Every letter seems to end the same way, she said: “Please write.”