Sunday, December 7, 2014

Honoring the heroes of Pearl Harbor

USS Nimitz renders honors to the USS Arizona Memorial

Today is the 73rd Anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and other military bases on Oahu.   The attack took place on a lazy Sunday morning.   I remember these words from actress Stockard Channing, who narrates the introductory film at the WWII Valor in the Pacific Memorial on Pearl Harbor (link).   I also remember her question, How do we honor them?

My friend, romance author Pamela Clare, prepared a special post for me in 2011.  Given the challenge she experienced this year in her battle with breast cancer, it is only fitting to sharing this post again about Uncle Jo.   Thank you, Pamela, for honoring the heroes ... and giving us hope for the future.

USS Utah Memorial

From Pamela ...

When Americans think of Pearl Harbor Day, they think of the smoke, the explosions, the burning ships. They think of President Roosevelt and his iconic speech about the attack and the “date which will live in infamy.” They think about the nation’s plunge into the Second World War.

I think of an uncle and aunt I never knew—Uncle Joe and Aunt Lillian. 

I don’t know how they met. I don’t know what made them fall in love. I know from photographs that Joe Conner was a handsome man and Lillian was beautiful. I know they got married late in November and spent the first week of December on their honeymoon in Hawaii, where Uncle Joe served as a seaman in the U.S. Navy.

On Saturday, Dec. 6, his honeymoon at an end, Uncle Joe, a Fireman 1st Class, reported back to the U.S.S. Utah, which was moored off Ford Island. A battleship that had been launched in December 1909, the Utah had had been refitted for training young seamen. It had just returned to port after participating in an advanced anti-aircraft gunnery cruise in Hawaiian waters, probably while Uncle Joe was off on his honeymoon.

At 8 a.m. the next morning, men on deck reported the approach of three airplanes, which they at first believed to be American airplanes. But when the planes reached the southern end of Ford Island, they began dropping bombs on seaplane hangars. At 8:01, the Utah was hit by a torpedo and immediately began to list to port, its stern sinking.

What had begun as another day of training had now become a battle for survival for the more than 500 men on the U.S.S. Utah. Men who were below decks rushed to get topside, knowing that remaining below would mean death.

At 8:12, the mooring lines snapped, and the ship rolled onto its side, clearly on its way to capsizing. 

Rescue efforts for the USS Utah

A sinking ship poses a variety of risks to human life. If you’re onboard, you can become trapped and drown. Because the lights on a ship go out when it is flooded, victims not only drown, but lose their way and drown in the dark. A sinking ship can also suck down nearby swimmers with a force that makes the strongest undertow seem like a bathtub drain. And when cold water hits the hot boilers inside, the boilers can explode. The men knew these things, and those who’d made it off the sinking vessel swam hard for shore.

Of Utah’s crew, 30 officers and 431 enlisted men survived the attack. Six officers and 52 men died. Uncle Joe went down with the ship, and his body remains there still. The U.S.S. Utah memorial, often called the “forgotten memorial,” is his tomb.

I traded emails with survivors of the U.S.S. Utah a few years back. Sadly, none of them knew Uncle Joe. But they were able to share some information with me. Because I know he was a Fireman 1st Class, one survivor speculated that he had been deep in the ship and had either died as a result of the torpedo attack or drown while working with Chief Watertender Peter Tomich to buy time for others to escape by trying keeping the boilers from exploding. (Tomich was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his sacrifice, which no doubt saved many men’s lives.)

When I think of the attack on Pearl Harbor, I wonder about Uncle Joe. Did he die in the initial blast? Did he stay behind, hoping to escape but placing the lives of his crewmates first, knowing that those boilers had to be controlled? When did he realize that he was going to die, leaving his new bride a widow? Did he drown in the dark, drawing his last breath alone in the blackness? 

Sailors honor the heroes of the USS Utah

My family has a strong Navy tradition. My grandfather served in the Navy during World War II. We have photos of him roller-skating in Brazil while on shore leave. My father’s younger brother served in the Navy during Vietnam. I participated in Navy Jr. ROTC in high school, attending boot camp at the San Diego Naval Training center.

But Uncle Joe died at Pearl Harbor. All we have of him are the mementos of the U.S.S. Utah that Kim sent us last year. My mother and I went through them together, the reality of Uncle Joe’s experience becoming more vivid to us as we looked at photos and read about the memorial. One day we’d love to visit, although I understand the memorial is open only to military personal and civilians with a military escort. Hopefully, we can arrange that, even as we both try to learn more about Uncle Joe and how he died. 

Pearl Harbor shocked the nation to its soul. Most of us have some idea what it must have felt like because we were around for 9/11. But in the wake of 9/11, and as those who remember World War II pass on, it’s easy to let the events of Dec. 7, 1941, fall into the background, as if they were ancient history.

Take time today to learn about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Read the stories of each ship and of the hangars that were bombed and the people who were shot by strafing fire. If you read the casualty list, you’ll find my uncle there: Joseph Ucline Conner, F1c.

May he and the others who gave their lives that day rest in peace.

Flag at half staff over the USS Utah Memorial

Mahalo, Pamela, for sharing your family's legacy with us.  In May 2011, Pamela asked me to review BREAKING POINT whose hero was a Navy SEAL (link). I read the book out loud to Uncle Joe and the other 57 sailors aboard the USS Utah. I thought I heard him reply, "How about a Fireman 1st Class for a hero?"

The USS Utah is located on the opposite side of Ford Island where the USS Missouri is moored, overlooking the USS Arizona. The tour buses visit Mighty Mo but not the Utah. But I visited it once a week when I lived in Hawaii - I want Pamela's family to know that Uncle Joe is not forgotten.

Be thankful for our freedom on this lazy Sunday morning.


Kim in Baltimore
Aloha Spirit in Charm City


  1. I found this very moving thank you.

  2. Awesome post. I'm adding to my blog as well. Thanks for sharing it.

  3. Thank you for posting this. Very emotional. But very appreciated.But you know "Heroes Never Die".
    Carol L
    Lucky4750 (at) aol (dot). com

  4. Thank you for sharing such a personal episode. My dad served in the USN and it was 2 weeks before Mom found out that his ship had left Pearl Harbor shortly before the attack.

  5. Thank you for sharing.....I had tears in my eyes reading their story.

  6. That was an amazing story. Uncle Joe is a hero.

  7. I appreciate you sharing Pamela's story again - it is so moving.

  8. Wow, what a moving story! May we remember them every day, including this lazy Sunday morning. I can't even imagine.

  9. That was definitely a moving story. I agree with Debby, "Uncle Joe" was a hero.

  10. God Bless Joe Conner and all those who gave the ultimate sacrifice to protect the rest of us. Those WWII vets really were The Greatest Generation to move America forward. May they serve as an example to our current military, youth, politicians, and us "regular" folk. Thanks for this wonderful post.

  11. I think it's the personal stories, like what you've told us about Uncle Joe, that make historical events more vivid - thank you for sharing.

  12. Beautiful story! Thanks for sharing!