Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Special guest - Pamela Clare and Uncle Joe

Today I welcome a special guest who needs no introduction, Pamela Clare - journalist, author, activist, and niece of Uncle Joe who tragically died aboard the USS Utah on December 7, 1941. 

USS Utah (in water) and memorial

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. 

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? 

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 Adams (thank you, 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. 

But now you want to know how the rest of the story goes. You’re wondering about his bride, Lillian.

Sadly, she did not get a second chance at a happy ending.

Widowed a week after her wedding, heartbroken and grieving for her husband, Lillian never remarried. She eventually returned to the mainland and lived the rest of her life with her two sisters, Lorena, who had dozens of cats, and Ethel, who’d shot and killed her abusive husband with his own handgun. But that’s another story.

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.

Mahalo, Pamela, for sharing your family's legacy with us. Back in May, Pamela asked me to review BREAKING POINT whose hero was a Navy SEAL. 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 the island where the USS Missouri is moored, overlooking the USS Arizona. The tour buses visit Mighty Mo but not the Utah. But I visit it once a week and I want Pamela's family to know that Uncle Joe is not forgotten.

In honor of Uncle Joe, I am giving away a 2012 Hawaiian Calendar that may represent places he shared with his bride. To enter the giveaway, leave a comment about freedom. This giveaway is open to all readers.


Kim in Hawaii

Rainbow over Pearl Harbor near the Utah

As we remember those lost to this tragedy, we live in freedom knowing others step forward to serve in the military.  Tara Nina is my guest at ALOHA ON MY MIND at this link, sharing her thoughts on her son's enlistment in the Navy - he is the next generation of heroes. 


  1. Freedom is something we take for granted but would not have if not for our military.

  2. Pamela's post is a heart wrenching reminder of the cost of freedom. Thank you for sharing.


  3. We should never forget these heroes.


  4. What a moving and touching story of how these events touch our lives. Thanks Kim for the great post and Pamela for her story.

  5. What a touching story. For me freedom is not free.

  6. wow what a great post and i love the photo : rainbow over Pearl Harbor near the Utah, so beautiful ;)

  7. God bless all the heros of WWII. And God especially bless men like Joe Conner who gave their lives for others. Yesterday. Today. And in
    the future. From a lady who remembers that day.

  8. Pamela, thank you for sharing your uncle's story with us. I hope his bride found some peace and happiness even if she didn't remarry.

  9. What a very heartbreaking story, thanks so much for sharing it with us.

  10. Kim, I read your comments and got completely choked up. I'm so glad that the Utah and the men who went down with it aren't lying there unremembered.

    Thank you for sharing what you can about Uncle Joe with us, for your visits to the memorial, for inviting me to share his and Lillian's story on your blog and for caring about the military families in this broader romance community. Aloha and mahalo.

    Thank you, Debby, Barbara, and Sue.

    Reading Reviewer, you're welcome, and thank you.

    Thanks, Danielle and Eli. Isn't that rainbow photo beautiful? That's Kim's added touch there.

    Bertrice, thanks so much for your words. I would love to hear what you remember about it. I was trying to watch old news footage on YouTube.

    Thanks, LK Hunsaker. I hope so, too! I think she and her sisters were close. My mom remembers that they had WWII blinds on their windows for the rest of their lives. I'm guessing that having lived through Pearl Harbor, Aunt Lillian never really felt 100 percent safe again.

    Thank you, Mary, and you're welcome.

  11. That is a very interesting story. My grandfather Joe Manjarrez was in Honolulu planning to open up a jewelry store and move the family there on the day of the attack. He canceled the plan and returned back to San Francisco. I heard that the reason he was wanting to move was racial discrimination. He was Californio (Mexicano) and my grandmother was white. They thought Hawaii might be more tolerant. My grandfather never talked about this. I heard the story through another family member.

  12. Freedom has its price. But for those who have been so generous as to give up their lives so that we may live free, may your memory always live on and your sacrifices never be forgotten.

  13. Pamela,

    Thanks for sharing that story. I can only imagine how your aunt Lillian felt. No one will every forget the attack on Pearl Harbor.

  14. My father graduated early from high school and joined the Navy at 17 in 1943. I have only heard about his experiences in the Pacific, including Iwo Jima, in the past twenty years. Prior to that he never talked about it. He still has trouble with it. Getting him to open up to me as I was writing my WWII romance Islands was a wonderful experience. Thanks for sharing, Pamela.

  15. What a lovely, touching story, Pamela.

    For many of us, these events are just dates and data, but when we read stories such as yours they help us remember the men and women who were there and lived, or died, through it.

    Thank you for sharing Uncle Joe and Aunt Lillian with us.

  16. Thank you for sharing your story, Pamela. Those brave sailors and your Uncle Joe will never be forgotten. Nor will any other servicemen and women who serve, or have served, as long as we continue to hold them in our hearts and support the many organizations out there asking for our help.

    Because the bottom line is that we are free because of the brave.

  17. What a lovely but sad story, Pamela! I think all the people that were in Pearl Harbor at that day are heroes. They should never be forgotten.

  18. the brave , i think they has a little extra special part in heaven

    we are so lucky we can say stupod things to any one and only have to worry about getting laughed at , that alot of places ppl cant

    i have a picture of my granny that looks like your aunt picture

  19. God bless all the military men and women and their family members who sacrifice so much to guarantee our freedom.

    Thanks, Pamela, for such a moving and heart-felt tribute to the heroes of Pearl Harbor.

  20. We owe them all so much and I have heard many touching stories. Thanks for a great post to help us all remember.


  21. Pamela, I am sorry for your loss and mourn with you all of the losses on that infamous day and the ensuing years of WWII.

  22. Pamela, wishing you all the best. This was a touching post and thank you for sharing. Freedom is something I am ever so thankful for. I can't imagine a world without it and yet some part of the world live this reality. It's a somber thought.

  23. Wow. Pamela, what a moving tribute to your Uncle Joe; thank you for sharing. Kim, your generosity in sending the mementos to Pamela and visiting every week is amazing.

    My freedom comes at the sacrifice of others and I am eternally grateful to all the men and women of the military for all they do.

  24. Thanks for sharing Uncle Joe's story with us, Pamela.

  25. Thanks for sharing your uncle's story, Pamela. My daddy was in the Navy during WWII, but wasn't, thank God, at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. An irony of my life is that my grandson's paternal grandfather, a Japanese born in the USA, was interred in Poston, AZ, during the war. Unfairness abounds in the world. Alway has. And, I fear, it always will.

  26. Freedom isn't free. There have been so many lives sacrificed so that we can be free.
    Honor these men and women by remembering.

  27. Hi Pamela What a great story, If I remember one of your Rangers is a Conner what a wonderful way to honer your Uncle.Uncle Joe and all who lost there lives will never be forgotten.
    Have a good one Ann.

  28. I've been writing and have gotten waaaay behind on responses here.

    Thanks to those of you who've shared stories, and thanks for your gracious comments.

    It's strange to inherit a story with so many missing pieces.

    Alice D., that's a heart-wrenching part of the story, isn't it? Internment camps.

    Samantha, I've heard people complain about vets from the current war and Vietnam, saying that the WWII generation didn't have problems with PTSD, but that's just not true. I think it was just handled differently. A lot of men of that generation kept what they were suffering afterward to themselves. It sounds like your father may be one of those men.

    Thanks again for all the heart-felt comments, and many thanks to Kim for inviting me to share this with you, for giving away a cool prize, and for visiting Uncle Joe. (That makes me tear up every time I read it, Kim.)

  29. Please don't enter me for the contest... I want others to enjoy :)

    Thanks you for a very moving post. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone remember this day and honoring lost family.

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  31. Thank you, Kim, for this post. And thank you, Pamela, for sharing this very moving story of your Uncle Joe and Aunty Lillian. I have tears in my eyes.

    My heart aches for them both and their families. I do hope Aunt Lillian found happiness in this life, even though she didn't remarry, with her sisters and cats. I'm a cat person and I think they are precious companions.

    Today is my 9th year wedding anniversary. I remember my late big brother, Jamie, saying to me, "Don't get married on 7th Dec, as that's the anniversary of Pearl Harbor". Well, I got married on 8th Dec, but on the other side of the world (I'm in Australia), it IS the 7th of Dec. I said to Jamie, "What's wrong with having my anniversary on this day? At least I won't forget the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. And as I remember one of the happiest days in my life, I will remember the lives lost for our freedom."

    My grandfather died in 1945, during the second World War, of yellow fever in the jungles of Borneo, a mere 16 days after my father was born. My poor grandmother had just given birth, and her husband lay dying by her side, as they were hiding away in the jungle from the Japanese soldiers. And it was American and Australian soldiers who came to free them a few weeks later. I will always remember my grandmother saying to me, about my grandfather, "I loved him so much. If only he could have held on a bit longer, the Americans soldiers would have come with their medicine and he might have survived..."

    So, while I am not American - I'm Malaysian/Australian - Pearl Harbor touched my family's life, too. Because that was the start of the war that affected so much of the world. And the sacrifices that those who served is so very greatly appreciated...though that seems like such an inadequate thing to say...

    Anyway, there is a stanza from a poem that they play here in Australia during Remembrance Day:

    "Lest We Forget...
    They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old,
    Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn,
    At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
    We shall remember them."

    ~ The "Ode of Remembrance" is an ode taken
    from Laurence Binyon's poem "For the Fallen"

  32. Jayne, what a heartbreaking story! I can't imagine how horrible that was for your grandmother to endure. And thanks for sharing the poem. Very touching. Your post brought tears to my eyes.

    Thank you, everyone, for sharing this remembrance with me yesterday.

    And thank you, Kim, for having me here.

  33. God Bless all the people who have been in the military (past and present) who have sacrificed so much so that we can enjoy our freedom. Let us never forget them.

  34. That is a sad story but it does make me appreciate what so many men and women have sacrificed for all the rights and freedoms I enjoy.

  35. Thanks for sharing your story about Uncle Joe and Aunt Lillian. How sad. Hopefully she found some happiness living with her sisters and the cats.

    Thank God for all the service people both past and present who have seved so that we can remain free. My dad served in WWII and my husband served in Viet Nam. Luckily they both lived to tell their stories. God Bless all of them both past and present.