Photo by Loretta Yerian.
WILLIAMS, Ariz, — As Franklin D. Roosevelt accurately stated when he appeared before Congress asking for a declaration of war against Japan, Dec. 7, 1941 is “a date which will live in infamy…”
To honor that day, the Williams American Legion Cordova Post 13 broke ground Dec. 7 on a new Pearl Harbor/U.S.S. Arizona display at Memorial Park to remind people of the day Japanese fighter planes attacked the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, taking Americans completely by surprise and thrusting the U.S. into World War II.
“It was a day that defined America and changed the world,” said American Legion member Rodger Ely in a speech during the dedication ceremony.
Military veterans and supporters convened at the park for the ground -breaking of the new display, which will include an actual steel portion of the U.S.S. Arizona that was obtained by the American Legion.
“As I think of this 75th anniversary, I think about the fact that there will come a time when there are no living survivors left and I feel the importance of ensuring that our young people are aware of that day that changed our country and I believe that we must continue to honor our past in order to
influence our future,” said Coconino County Supervisor Matt Ryan at the event.
The attack at Pearl Harbor was a surprise, but the United States and Japan had endured a decade of worsening relations and many believed conflict was inevitable. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Japan invaded China, made an alliance with Germany and Italy, and occupied French Indochina, which prompted the United States to respond by employing economic sanctions and trade embargoes. By late 1941, tensions grew as the United States had severed practically all commercial and financial relations with Japan.
However, American military leaders did not expect an attack at home, nearly 4,000 miles from Japan. Almost the entire Pacific Fleet was stationed around Ford Island in Pearl Harbor with hundreds of airplanes on the nearby airfields.
On Dec. 7, Japan launched a sneak attack at Pearl Harbor, shattering a peaceful Hawaiian morning and leaving behind a harbor full of burning and
sunken ships. The first wave of Japanese planes targeted the airfields and battleships. The second wave targeted other ships and shipyard facilities. The air raid began at 7:55 a.m. and lasted until 9:45 a.m. Over 2,330 military personnel were killed and 68 civilians lost their lives that day; over 1,000 were injured. Of the 2,335 military killed, almost half were from the U.S.S. Arizona.
The U.S.S. Arizona was one of the first ships hit when the Japanese aircraft began their attack. Of the 353 Japanese aircraft launched, four scored hits on the Arizona. Three bombs hit various places on the ship starting small fires, but the last bomb penetrated the armored deck near the ammunition magazines in the forward section of the ship which detonated causing a cataclysmic explosion. Much of the interior of the forward part of the ship was destroyed, which effectively tore the ship in half leaving approximately 1,000 men trapped inside. Of the 1,512 crewmen on board, 1,177 died during the attack.
Following the sinking of the U.S.S. Arizona, torpedoes pierced the shell of the battleship U.S.S. Oklahoma. With 400 sailors aboard, the Oklahoma lost her balance, rolled onto her side and slipped underwater. By the time the attack was over, every battleship in Pearl Harbor had sustained significant damage. Ultimately, five of the battleships sunk. Three light cruisers, three destroyers and three smaller vessels were also lost, along with nearly 300 aircraft.
Of the eight battleships, all but the Arizona, Utah and Oklahoma were eventually repaired and returned to service. The attack unified the U.S. and removed any earlier support for neutrality. On Dec. 8, Congress declared war on Japan and the U.S. formally entered World War II.
The battle touches Williams
One of the ships in Pearl Harbor that was left unscathed that day was the U.S.S. Whitney, a destroyer tender designed to provide service, supplies and repairs for destroyers during wartime conditions. On that ship, was Williams resident Benjamin Franklin Johnson.
Johnson was born June 26, 1919 on a ranch east of Williams near Davenport Lake. Johnson grew up attending Williams schools and spent his summers tending local sheep herds. Johnson’s family eventually moved into town, where his father worked at the Saginaw and Manistee Lumber Company, his mother worked as a housekeeper and Johnson got a job selling newspapers.
On April 5, 1940 Johnson joined the U.S. Navy, enlisting as an apprentice seaman. In July of 1940 he began duty on the U.S.S. Whitney.
The Whitney typically tended destroyers in the Atlantic Fleet but was sent to the Pacific Coast because of the growing American concern about the expansionist aspirations of Japan. The Whitney had storage capacity for fuel, lubricating oil, fresh water, provisions, spare parts and had repair facilities such as optical and machine shops utilized by destroyers.
In December of 1941, all the Pacific Fleet battleships were in port at Pearl Harbor engaging in routine upkeep and repairs or rest and recreation. The Whitney was tending to destroyers Conyngham, Case, Reid, Tucker, and Selfridge that were moored alongside it. The tender was providing steam and electricity and was flushing and providing fresh water to the destroyers. Most of the tender’s officers and 90 percent of the enlisted men were on the ship.
As the harbor came under attack in the early hours of Dec. 7, Whitney sailors witnessed the assault.
According to Johnson’s daughter Eleanor Johnson Miller, throughout his life Johnson was reluctant to talk about the attack at Pearl Harbor but he opened up to her on the 50th anniversary of the attack.
“That’s the only time he said anything about it to either me or any of my sisters,” Miller said.
Johnson told her the morning of the bombing he had just come up on the forward deck of the Whitney with a cup of coffee. He saw two planes flying in unison come over battleship row and they each dropped bombs over the ships anchored there. The planes banked very close to the Whitney, one going left and one going right. He saw the emblem of the rising sun on the wings of the planes.
Miller said Johnson went to the engine room as fast as he could, sliding down stair banisters. He knew the Whitney had to get up steam to be able to fire the ship’s guns. He said at this time all the gun turrets were run by steam. He yelled at the engine room officer to get the steam up because they were under attack, but they just laughed at him. He was pleading with them when they heard a bomb explode.
Johnson retrieved his navy pistol and went back to the deck and started shooting at every plane that came by.
“He said he wasn’t sure if he did any damage, but it at least gave him some satisfaction,” she said.
Johnson said all of the commanding officers were on Oahu for a Christmas party but his commanding officer was one of the first to return because he hired a private boat to row him out to the Whitney.
Johnson said the crew of the Whitney lowered their life boats and for days assisted in pulling wounded and dead service men from the surrounding water. During those days, Johnson said he would ask each new person he met if they still heard tapping from the men inside the U.S.S. Arizona.
“He said he didn’t know which made him feel worse, waiting for the tapping to stop or when it actually stopped,” Miller said.
Johnson told Miller there was tapping coming from the other overturned and damaged ships, but men were able to cut holes with welding torches to save some of the trapped seamen.
Miller said Johnson stayed with the Whitney in Pearl Harbor until April of 1942.
“That had to be hard for him because there were so many bodies, people burned and the damaged ships,” she said.
Following the attack, Johnson was promoted to Chief Petty Officer and was stationed on the U.S.S. Bollinger. Because the Bollinger was a transport ship, Johnson was not allowed to come home like other enlisted men directly after the war ended. He spent the next five years transferring men and equipment from Europe back to the U.S. After seven years in the Navy, Johnson desperately wanted to go home to Williams.
In April 1946, Johnson was discharged from the Navy after serving six years and two months. He had achieved the rating of Master Electrician and was given a job at the Navajo Ordnance Depot in Bellemont, Arizona. Johnson married Helen Hancock and had three daughters whom they raised in Williams.
Johnson did return to Pearl Harbor to visit but would never go to any of the anniversary events.
“My stepmother said he would have nightmares because there was so much on TV (during the anniversaries) and so much talking about it,” she said.
On Aug. 7, 1992 Johnson passed away in his sleep at home in Williams. He is buried beside his wife in the Williams cemetery.
“He was like many other battle survivors,” Miller said of Johnson. “He said he wasn’t a hero. He said the only heroes are the ones who died that day.”
The U.S.S. Whitney’s commanding officer, Nathaniel Moore Pigman, subsequently wrote in his after action report to the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet that men on board were “calm and unexcited throughout the engagement.” He said they manned their battle stations efficiently and carried out all orders promptly and without confusion and that all officers and men of the Whitney were deserving of the highest praise for their conduct during the engagement.
All of the battleships at Pearl Harbor were raised and repaired except for the U.S.S. Utah and the U.S.S. Arizona, which both still lie at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. The USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor was dedicated on May 30, 1962 to all those who died during the attack.