The events of the past few minutes coursed through John Anderson’s mind like the hellish nightmare that it was. He had been assigned to set up chairs on the ship’s main deck for the Sunday morning worship service. His brother Jake and many others were still sound asleep below deck on a serene Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor.
John initially stared in disbelief when he saw bombs falling on a nearby island. But his instincts as a turret gunner aboard the USS Arizona took over— he rushed to his post, a bomb soon glancing off his turret and penetrating the deck. Seconds later, another bomb hit the forward ammunition magazine with its 1.5 million pounds of gunpowder. The ensuing massive explosion ripped open the ship’s hull, sending sailors flying in all directions.
Amid the hellish mix of death, destruction, and confusion, John could only think of saving his brother Jake. Farm boys from North Dakota whose family moved to Minnesota when they were still young, John Delmar Anderson and Jake Delbert Anderson had bonded like most brothers.
Knowing the ship was sinking, John headed below deck in a desperate search for Jake. But an officer ordered him off the ship and onto a barge taking surviving sailors, many wounded, to shore. Once he got to shore, John immediately found a small boat and began paddling back to the Arizona. But it was too late, the massive ship settling into a watery grave in just nine minutes.
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John sustained injuries swimming back to shore but survived, one of only 335 of the Arizona’s crew of 1,512 who escaped death on December 7, 1941. Thirty-seven sets of brothers were aboard the Arizona that fateful morning. My family bought our first house from a man named Howard Keniston who lost his two sons, his only children, aboard the Arizona at Pearl Harbor.
Researching an article about the Keniston brothers for last year’s 74th anniversary of Pearl Harbor brought other stories about brothers on the Arizona to my attention. An editor’s request for a list of Minnesotans who perished on the Arizona led to the story of John and Jake Anderson. Another was that of the Miller brothers of Marysville, Ohio, the only other set of brothers from Ohio to die that day besides the Keniston boys of my native Cincinnati.
One of the sad ironies of the Miller’s family story is that the parents were celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary when word of the attack came crackling over their radio on Sunday afternoon. Their worst fears were soon confirmed, Jesse and George Miller also perishing on the Arizona. Every Memorial Day thereafter, Mrs. Miller would take a bouquet of flowers down to a small stream on their farm and place the flowers in the water. She later told a neighbor “maybe the flowers will float into a bigger creek and then to a river and maybe to the ocean and finally float to the place where my two boys lay.”
I became even more aware of that need to feel connected to Pearl Harbor when I received responses to my article last year. Relatives of other sailors who served in the Pacific understandably felt a tight connection to Pearl Harbor. But the cathartic links were often less direct, one woman writing that her father “also died because of that day.” He worked in the Brooklyn Ship Yard where new ships were rapidly being built for the war effort triggered by Pearl Harbor. He inhaled asbestos fibers at the shipyard and later died of mesothelioma.
But this was the most touching letter I received. “On Christmas Eve day, 1953, my Navy destroyer entered Pearl Harbor, and, as we passed the wreckage site of the Arizona, an announcement came from the bridge: ‘Attention to port. Hand salute.’
“At that time there was no memorial, just a portion of the Arizona’s hull and leaking oil rising to the surface. The salute lasted nearly three full minutes and not one sailor on that ship brought his hand down until the word ‘two’ was passed from the bridge.
What an honor it was to salute the Arizona.” May we do no less today on this 75th anniversary of the day that shall truly live in infamy.
James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.