On January 7, 1942, one month after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Vice Admiral William F. Halsey was presented with a proposal for the U.S. Navy’s first significant offensive operation in the Pacific.
Halsey’s flagship, the carrier USS Enterprise, would team with Yorktown to strike the Japanese-held Marshall Islands and Gilbert Islands, while Lexington would hit Wake Island. Enterprise‘s aircraft would launch their raid about three weeks later, on February 1, and ultimately would succeed in demonstrating the damage the Navy’s carrier-based forces could do.
Enterprise‘s aircraft would be credited with destroying a dozen Japanese planes while sinking three ships and damaging eight others in raids around the northern Marshall Islands that morning. With her own planes recovered, Enterprise set a course back toward Hawaii at high speed after spending hours within the reach of enemy airfields.
Before she could get out of range, though, the Japanese managed a strike of their own with five twin-engine bombers. None of them managed to score a direct hit on the mighty carrier, but one bomb detonated close enough to kill Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Hoyle Smith.
Unlike the hundreds of other men aboard the U.S.S. Oklahoma as the clock neared 8 a.m. on Sunday, December 7, 1941, Lt. (j.g.) Aloysius Schmitt might reasonably have thought the bulk of his work for the day was already done.
Lt. (j.g.) Aloysius H. Schmitt (U.S. Navy photo)
The Catholic chaplain had said Mass at 7 a.m. and was hearing confessions aboard the battleship he had called home since early 1940. The Oklahoma was moored at berth F-5 at Pearl Harbor, outboard of the U.S.S. Maryland on the south side of Ford Island — Battleship Row, they called it.
At about 7:55 a.m., Japanese dive bombers zoomed low over the harbor, first targeting American planes on the ground at Ford Island and elsewhere in the vicinity. Minutes later, the first torpedoes were in the water, and Battleship Row was under attack.
The incident was over within two hours, the Japanese planes on their way back to rendezvous with their carriers at sea. They left behind a horrorscape of destruction centered on two battleships, the Arizona and Oklahoma. Of the 2,403 people killed that morning — the first official American combat deaths of World War II — just over two-thirds were aboard those two ships.
Among them was the man known to his shipmates as “Father Al,” who spent his final minutes ensuring others had a chance to escape the Oklahoma as he put his own fate in the hands of God.
The aspect of World War II that contributes the most to the endless well of stories about the conflict that is part of this site’s reason for being is its universality. Regular people, from all walks of life, from nearly every corner of the earth, were pushed to the limits of human tolerance during every one of the 2,194 days of the war. Today we spotlight the epitome of such an everyman.
Deane O. Birckelbaw
Pvt. Deane O. Birckelbaw was born and raised in the area around Normal, Illinois, and never lived anywhere else until the war pulled him away for good. He graduated from Normal Community High School and what was then called Illinois State Normal University, a music major who played the trombone.
Viewed from decades later, nothing in his background suggests an inclination toward military service. But then, there were no such prerequisites as the United States found itself embroiled in a conflict whose scope reached far beyond anything it had experienced before.
More than half of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II were recognized posthumously. Today we look at brief sketches of three men who died on November 19 — one in 1943, two in 1944 — while bringing honor to themselves and their country.
Capt. John P. Cromwell, Navy
Capt. John P. Cromwell
The 42-year-old Illinois native was in charge of a wolf pack of four submarines in the Pacific and was aboard the U.S.S. Sculpin on November 19, 1943, when she was fatally wounded in an engagement with the Japanese destroyer Yamagumo. Due to damage caused by depth charges, the Sculpin had to surface and was finished off by the destroyer’s guns.
As the rest of the crew abandoned ship, Cromwell and 11 others remained aboard and scuttled the vessel. Cromwell was afraid his knowledge of Ultra — the allied success in breaking German codes — and other key plans might be extracted from him under torture, so he chose to go down with the ship.
Cromwell’s Medal of Honor citation reads:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Commander of a Submarine Coordinated Attack Group with Flag in the U.S.S. Sculpin, during the 9th War Patrol of that vessel in enemy-controlled waters off Truk Island, 19 November 1943. Undertaking this patrol prior to the launching of our first large-scale offensive in the Pacific, Capt. Cromwell, alone of the entire Task Group, possessed secret intelligence information of our submarine strategy and tactics, scheduled Fleet movements and specific attack plans. Constantly vigilant and precise in carrying out his secret orders, he moved his underseas flotilla inexorably forward despite savage opposition and established a line of submarines to southeastward of the main Japanese stronghold at Truk. Cool and undaunted as the submarine, rocked and battered by Japanese depth charges, sustained terrific battle damage and sank to an excessive depth, he authorized the Sculpin to surface and engage the enemy in a gunfight, thereby providing an opportunity for the crew to abandon ship. Determined to sacrifice himself rather than risk capture and subsequent danger of revealing plans under Japanese torture or use of drugs, he stoically remained aboard the mortally wounded vessel as she plunged to her death. Preserving the security of his mission, at the cost of his own life, he had served his country as he had served the Navy, with deep integrity and an uncompromising devotion to duty. His great moral courage in the face of certain death adds new luster to the traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
That’s how long it took from the moment the Japanese torpedo struck the U.S.S. McKean‘s starboard hull until the last of the venerable ship’s four signature stacks disappeared from view beneath Empress Augusta Bay in the early morning hours of November 17, 1943.
For a vessel that had been afloat for a quarter century and had become a workhorse for the Navy and its frequent Marine Corps passengers during the Solomon Islands campaign, the end was swift and tragic.
Of the 338 men aboard, 116 were killed. That the death toll was not even higher was a credit to the coolheadedness of McKean‘s crew, the Marine detachment on board, and the men on nearby U.S. ships who engaged Japanese planes even as they plucked survivors from the water.
In the words of United Press correspondent Frank Tremaine, the “gallant little destroyer-transport … went down with her siren wailing defiance to the Japs and her hull flaming amid a series of heroic exploits which fittingly wound up her 25-year career.”
Robert Parker couldn’t be certain when he enlisted in the Army in November of 1941 that the war that had raged around the world for more than two years would touch the United States. But he knew what he wanted to be doing if it did.
The allure of joining the air corps was enough to persuade him to leave the business administration program at Michigan State College (now University) after two years and get ahead of the draft board. He and three friends from Lansing all set their sights on pilot training, and a month after Pearl Harbor they were doing exactly that.
Lt. Robert Parker
Parker, Bruce Boylan, H.H. Holloway and Clarice Randall found themselves at Kelly Field, near San Antonio, as the Army Air Forces rushed to get as many new pilots into the air as it could in the months following the December 7 attack. After five weeks of basic military training at Kelly, the newly minted aviation cadets of Class 42-F moved on to flight training. Parker was sent to Corsicana, Texas, the week before Christmas and finally got his chance to take to the air.
Pilot training wasn’t all that occupied the 22-year-old Parker’s mind in the early months of 1942. That February, as noted in the Lansing State Journal, he played host in Corsicana to Miss Margaret Ellen Davies, a former classmate at Central High School who now worked as a typist at the Reo Motor Car Company office in Lansing. By the following summer, the pair would announce their engagement.
Her departure allowed Parker to return to the task at hand, and by July he had earned his wings, finishing pilot training alongside Boylan at Foster Field in Victoria, Texas. Holloway and Randall also graduated with their class and all were commissioned into the Army Air Forces.
Naunita Harmon Carroll stood in silence, her eyes shielded from the late-afternoon sky by her wide-brimmed hat, as the United States Navy’s newest destroyer escort slid down the ways from the Bethlehem Steel Company’s shipyard and into the Fore River.
MAtt1c Leonard Roy Harmon (via UT-San Antonio)
It was late afternoon on July 25, 1943, a little over eight months since her son and dozens of others had been killed aboard the U.S.S. San Francisco in fierce night fighting off Guadalcanal, and the lifelong Texan had traveled to Quincy, Massachusetts, to see her second born honored in unprecedented fashion.
The U.S.S. Harmon was the first United States warship to be named after an African-American, earning its namesake a now mostly forgotten place in history.
“I hope that this ship will do the work that my boy started and carry on as he would have done,” Harmon’s mother told a reporter from the Afro-American newspapers.
As she spoke, the Navy Cross awarded to Mess Attendant 1st Class Leonard Roy Harmon gleamed on the front of her black-and-white dress. After maintaining her composure throughout the brief ceremony, Naunita broke down in tears.