Sunday, December 6, 2015

Aloha to Pearl Harbor, Pamela Clare, and Uncle Joe

Check out my guest post on USA Today's HEA Blog at this link - military heroes in romance books to remember this Day of Infamy. 

December 7, 2015, is the 74th Anniversary of the Japanese attack on the island of Oahu.  I am reprinting a blog post from December 7, 2011, with special guest Pamela Clare.  Pamela is a journalist, author, activist, and niece of Uncle Joe who tragically died aboard the USS Utah on December 7, 1941.

USS Utah 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.  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.  When I lived on Pearl Harbor, I visited the USS Utah Memorial once a week.  I want Pamela's family to know that Uncle Joe is not forgotten.


Kim in Baltimore
Aloha Spirit in Charm City

Picture of a rainbow taken from USS Utah Memorial 


  1. My dad was in the USN and at the time of Pearl, he was serving on a tanker. One of three that was travelling between Hawaii and California. It took some time for him to contact my mom to let her know he was safe and was at sea when Pearl was attacked.

  2. My eyes had were raining after reading this. I thank God that my dad and his two brothers came home alive at WWII.

  3. What a wonderful yet sad story. I am lucky my dad survived his short stint in the navy. As the mother of a former soldier, the pain other families have felt during such horrid attacks as Pearl and the twin towers is still here. Hug a veteran!
    Nancy Lee Badger

  4. Very fitting post. I did visit Pearl Harbor. It is quite emotional.

  5. It's always more poignant when you hear personal stories! Both my husband's parents and my dad and 3 uncles all served during WWII. My husband is a Vietnam vet.

  6. Thank you for sharing this with us. I was fortunate enough to hear a Pearl Harbor survivor give a talk at our local library recently. He is 94 now. I am glad I got to meet him.

  7. lovely article.

  8. Thanks for your story Pamela. My grandfather enlisted in the Navy after the Pearl Harbor attack. He was a volunteer fireman before the war and because of this experience he was assigned as a fireman on board his ship. His home base was Pearl Harbor.

  9. personal stories like this make war so much more real

  10. A very touching story. RIP all those who have died protecting us. Thank you for your service.
    Natalie's Mama

  11. Very sad story.
    Patty B.