This article is condensed from a piece by Mr. Rozell in the WCHS Journal, and combined with a blog post that originally appeared at the Easter holiday. It appears in the Glens Falls Chronicle today. Thanks to news editor and columnist Gordon Wentworth for his support and encouragement.
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This weekend we stop and reflect on sacrifice, death, and the promise of new life.
As a teacher you wonder what kind of impact you may have. Fact is, most times you never know. But sometimes the kids take what you have given them, and teach you lessons themselves.
On Sunday, December 7th, 1941, the Japanese Empire commenced her early morning attack on Pearl Harbor. In New York State, it was early afternoon. Some local kids were out hunting, only to hear it on the car radio as they returned home. Some families heard the announcement as they were traveling to relatives’ homes for Sunday dinner; many others were at home, huddled around the family radio. A good many were at the theaters in Glens Falls or Hudson Falls to see the latest Abbott and Costello release when the show was interrupted and the announcement made. For young people and their elders, the response was the same: outrage, followed by the universal question- “Where the heck is Pearl Harbor?” The other universal feeling was the uneasy realization that life was going to be significantly altered from here on out.
A few local boys were already well aware of where the Pacific Fleet was anchored; they had joined the Navy already and on December 7th, were on board ship in Hawaii for the attack. At the time, over 180 ships and vessels were moored in the harbor. At 7:55 am, the first of two waves of Japanese planes struck.
Hudson Falls native Harry Randolph Holmes was on board the USS Oklahoma serving as a fire controlman. “Randy” had left high school early, and had arrived at Pearl Harbor a few weeks before. At seventeen, he was probably the youngest sailor out of nearly 1900 crew members. Dating from World War I, the “Okie” was an older ship with thin armor plating, but had lately made a name for herself evacuating Americans trapped in Spain at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936.Like many ships, she was in a state of complete unreadiness at the moment of the attack. Having returned to port following sea maneuvers only the day before, the ship has its anti-aircraft ammunition locked away and the normally closed watertight compartments below the water line opened in preparation for a fleet admiral’s inspection the following Monday, the 8th.
Barely minutes into the attack, as the airbases at Hickam and Wheeler Fields billowed smoke and flames and Battleship Row was coming under fire, the Oklahoma was struck by three Japanese torpedoes dropped at low altitude; crew members actually saw the torpedoes in the water with virtually no time to react. The explosions ripped through the port side with Randy and over 400 crew members trapped below her decks. The order was given to abandon ship but as the ship listed and more torpedoes were taken into her port side, the men inside were plunged into darkness, with water flooding the open compartments and their world now slowly turning upside down.
In desperation, many tried to make it up to the shell deck, from which it might be possible to climb to the top of the ship and jump overboard, the difficulty of which was compounded by the oil pouring over them from the damaged machines above, and the fact that the ship was still listing. As the ship gradually rolled, dozens of 1400 pound shells on the shell deck broke loose from their tie-downs and barreled towards the desperate sailors and they were crushed to death. When the ship took her fifth -some sources say ninth-torpedo, she capsized around 8:08 am. It had taken all of perhaps fifteen minutes. The “Okie” lay at 151 degrees with her masts in the Pearl Harbor mud.
The Japanese wheeled, and dove in again. The USS Arizona suffered a direct hit with a nearly two ton armor piercing bomb which penetrated below the main deck and instantly ignited stores of aviation fuel and gunpowder for the ship’s 14 inch guns, the subsequent explosion essentially broke the ship in two, lifting the vessel out of the water and instantly killing 1177 crewmen on board . When the battle had ended two hours later, over twenty ships had been sunk or damaged.
The tragedy of the USS Oklahoma was the second greatest loss of life aboard a ship. A frantic rescue operation by civilian shipyard crews with jack hammers and torches along the bottom of the ship over the next two days had saved some 32 men, but it was discovered
later that some of those trapped below had lived as long as three weeks in dark, inaccessible parts of the vessel. Randy Holmes was now the first kid from Hudson Falls, or Washington County, and perhaps New York State to be killed in what would become World War II.
By the time I walked the halls of this school in the 1970s, no one remembered him. But by chance in May 2000, I overheard a gathering of World War II veterans we had invited to the high school discussing him: “Do you remember Randy Holmes?” “Why yes, didn’t the Class of 1942 dedicate their yearbook to him?”
Naturally, my next step was to search the old yearbooks in the district vault and sure enough, there was his Navy portrait with the senior dedication underneath:
“RANDOLPH HOLMES- MISSING IN ACTION…
Word was received soon after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, by Mr. and Mrs. Randolph Holmes, that their son was ‘missing in action’. The young sailor was on board the steamship Oklahoma, when it was struck by a Japanese bomb. Randolph would have been a member of this year’s senior class if he had remained in school. He enlisted in the Navy New Year’s Day, 1941, and was sent to Newport, R.I., where he was in training as a machinist. Later he was transferred to the Great Lakes Training School in Chicago. He graduated with the rank of Seaman, Second Class.
In August of last year Randolph was ordered to report for duty to the S.S. Oklahoma. He was stationed on this boat in Pearl Harbor when the attack was made by the Japanese.
This young sailor was a popular student in Hudson Falls High School and both faculty and students keep in their hearts kind thought and happy memories of his manly qualities and sterling character.”
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According to the 1940 census , Randy had a sister but she left the community, as far as I can tell, becoming a nurse in the war. His parents passed away, brokenhearted. They were the ones who probably signed the release papers so that he could enter the service at age 17.
In the years that followed my trip to the vault, I told the story of the “Okie” and wondered aloud to my classes where our native son lay buried. Finally, one of my students, Mackenna Wood, took me up on the challenge, conducted her own research, and discovered the following from the National Park Service website: “Resting in the main channel of the harbor, a major salvage operation began in March of 1943. This massive undertaking involved the use of winches installed on Ford Island, which slowly rolled the ship back into place in an upright position. The ship was then pumped out
and the remains of over 400 sailors and Marines were removed. Two years later, a California salvage company bought the ship for scrap and began towing the USS Oklahoma to Oakland in the spring of 1947. On May 17, the ship began listing to port and the tow lines had to be cut. The USS Oklahoma sank approximately 540 miles northeast of the Hawaiian Islands. The spirits of 429 lost souls may have silently cheered when this tribute to the loss of the Oklahoma was written:
“Good for you, Oklahoma!
Go down at sea in deep water, as you should, under the stars.
No razor blades for you!
They can make ‘em from the ships and planes that did you in.
So long, Oklahoma! You were a good ship!”
So now we had an idea where Randy rested. Eighteen months after they died, the remains of the 429 men were recovered and buried in a mass grave at Pearl Harbor. Only 35 have been identified. The ship did not even have a memorial until 2007. But every Dec. 7th in our school now we make an effort in our history classes to remember Randy.
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So, back to the story of the first photo on this page.
In the days before our 2013 Easter break, my 10th grade history student Jessie Johnston told me that she was leaving with her family for a vacation to Hawaii- she wanted to give me notice, so that she could keep up with her assignments. Since she will be missing a class or two (and she’s heading to Hawaii and I am not!), I give her an extra assignment, never dreaming that she will actually pull it off:
My heart is gladdened when I arrive in school the day before Good Friday, open my e-mail, and find this photo. Maybe Randy and all of the soldiers, sailors, and Marines are resurrected-maybe they are no longer dead.
The kids remember.
In the words of Susie Stevens Harvey, who lost her brother in Vietnam and advocates for all POWs/MIAs, “Dying for freedom isn’t the worst that could happen.
Being forgotten is.”
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POSTSCRIPT, MAY 23, 2013.
JESSIE INFORMS ME TODAY THAT HER BIRTHDAY IS DECEMBER 7TH.
YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS STUFF UP.
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Matthew Rozell has recently been notified that his college alma mater, SUNY Geneseo, has selected him to receive their 2013 Excellence in Education Award, recognizing graduates who have “achieved extraordinary distinction in the field of education.”
Mr. Rozell will be touring Europe and studying the Holocaust and World War II this summer. To follow his visit, subscribe to his blog at teachinghistorymatters.wordpress.com. Click the “I’m Finally Going” tab at the top if you’d like to support.