HAMPTON — A cigar box containing letters and telegrams from the West Coast and eventually Pearl Harbor, newspaper clippings of the Japanese attacks at Pearl Harbor, and a locket containing a photo of the uncle he never met. These were some of the mementoes shared by 72-year-old Michael Jacobs of his uncle, Boiler Maker Second Class Wiley James Petway during an interview conducted in the social hall of Miles Memorial United Methodist Church in Norfolk’s Ocean View section. 23-year-old Petway paid the ultimate sacrifice 80 years ago when his ship, USS Oklahoma (BB 37) sustained torpedo hits and capsized during the attacks on December 7, 1941.
That uncle is interred locally at the Hampton National Cemetery. Jacobs shared some of his insights on his quest to learn more about his life and service to our nation, along with records obtained through research.
“My uncle died 8 years before I was born. I was named after my uncle. He was known as James, and my first name is James. James Michael Jacobs,” he started as he laid out some envelopes on the table containing letters and telegrams Petway had sent home. Each piece of brown yellowed paper showed their age, and he carefully read some of the letters during our interview.
“The newspaper articles and stuff were in a cigar box that my grandmother had. When my dad passed away, we were going through stuff and there were yellow articles and it was interesting to see that,” said Jacobs as he carefully took out another letter to look over.
Records show that Petway was born on December 29, 1918, in Wilson, North Carolina. At the time, the nation was in the grips of another pandemic with echoes to COVID-19: Spanish Flu. Jacobs reflected on his family’s move, before his birth, to the Hampton Roads area.
“You either farmed or you didn’t [referring to Wilson, North Carolina]. It was pretty much like that, thats why it was a migration up to this area because the shipyard was really big. Folks from Carolina coming up here. The whole family migrated. Grandfather, grandmother, aunt, uncle. Dad worked in the shipyard.”
The family’s move to Portsmouth, Va. was, according to Jacobs, tied to the influx of jobs at Norfolk Navy Yard.
In the years leading up to 1941, the shipyards at Newport News Shipbuilding and Norfolk Navy Yard were bustling with new warship construction. Records would show that 16 of the warships present at Pearl Harbor during the attacks were constructed here in Hampton Roads. Amid the activity of workers, one might think that Jacobs’ father would have probably seen, worked on, or been around one of those warships that would eventually be sent to the Pacific Fleet and ultimately to Pearl Harbor.
Jacobs and his family are still connected to a shipyard. They own and operate Harbour Marine and Pelican’s Nest Marina in the East Beach section of Norfolk. He noted that the summer months are a busy time for them, with full boat slips and recreational boaters keeping occupying their week.
Records show that Petway enlisted in the U.S. Navy on May 21, 1936. Deck logs from the Oklahoma show that he first reported aboard on October 2, 1936. At the time, Oklahoma was in the process of shifting operations from Norfolk to the West Coast and then eventually to Pearl Harbor. Records show that the battleship arrived at Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1940; exactly 1 year and 1 day prior to the fateful attacks.
Another letter, dated from April 1938 to his mother describes his time on the West Coast. Jacobs carefully picked up another folded letter and read his uncles words:
“This place is alright [California] for a visit, but duty here is not that good. After we get to Long Beach, the ship will stay for about a month and then we will go to Bremerton for 3 months. It rains all the rest of the year. I’m sending you a snapshot of myself, I tried to grow a cookie duster while on the cruise and you may think I was drinking chocolate malt, maybe I’m not a man yet. Tell daddy hello for me.”
It was during Petway’s time on the West Coast that he met and eventually married Gwen Evans on June 15, 1940. A marriage certificate shows that the young couple got married in Yuma County, Arizona; Petway was a mere 22 years old, his young bride Gwen, a mere 20 years old. An address on the certificate shows a residence in Compton, California. Records show that Gwen is a native of Oklahoma, an ironic twist given that her husband would perish aboard the battleship that is named for her home state. Gwen, as noted by Jacobs during the interview, was the aunt he never met.
Incidentally, Jacobs brought out a browned envelope dated December 3, 1941, mailed by his grandmother to Petway at Pearl Harbor. The letter never reached its intended recipient and was returned. Jacobs read the words written by his grandmother from the yellowed paper:
“It won’t be before about 6 more weeks when you and Gwen will be coming here [Norfolk] to visit…If you find a surprise in here, then it won’t be a surprise anymore. $150 as a wedding present for you and Gwen.”
That meager wedding present, along with his mother’s words never reached Petway as he was one of the 429 Sailors who perished as the Oklahoma was struck by torpedoes and capsized. During those fateful attacks, over 2,000 U.S. service members perished; the majority of those were the 1,177 U.S. Navy Sailors who perished on the USS Arizona (BB 39).
At the time of the attacks, Oklahoma was one of the Navy’s oldest battleships. Oklahoma was built in Camden, New Jersey and commissioned in May 1916. The battleship was among the first of the Navy’s large combatants built to burn fuel oil in her 12 Babcock and Wilcox boilers. Arguably, Petway would have stood watch and tended to those boilers, which supplied power to the battleship. Oklahoma was also one of the first to have her boilers, engine spaces and magazines enclosed with 13.5 inches of reinforced armor belt. This reinforcement was no match for the torpedoes dropped by attacking Japanese aircraft. Oklahoma bore the brunt of torpedo strikes and strafing runs and capsized.
A great many of her crew escaped, and some abandoned ship, swam away and climbed aboard USS Maryland (BB 46). While aboard Maryland, reports indicate that Oklahoma sailors helped man anti-aircraft batteries, among other duties during the attacks. A report compiled by one of Oklahoma’s pay clerks, D.L. Westfall shed some light on the conditions aboard the ship as she sustained damage and as crewmembers started to abandon ship:
“I seemed paralyzed from the waist down,” Westfall writes. “[I] had great difficulty breathing but had enough strength in my arms to drag myself to the ladder and up a couple of steps before collapsing completely [from burning fuel oil fumes]. After passing out I had flashes of consciousness until mid-afternoon. When I recovered, I was at the Naval Air Dispensary at Ford Island. Shortly thereafter, I joined a bunch of men going over to BOQ-Bachelor Officers Quarters-at the Air Station and started to check on survivors from the supply department.”
Amid the chaos in the aftermath of the attacks, some of the wounded were taken aboard USS Solace (AH 5). The hospital ship was originally constructed at Newport News Shipbuilding as a passenger ship. Solace was converted to a hospital ship in Brooklyn, New York before being commissioned in that role in August 1941; just shy of four months before the attacks. Records indicate that wounded sailors were moved aboard starting at 0825 that morning, and the hospital ship eventually cared for 132 patients. Nearby hospitals, clinics, dispensaries, and makeshift triages scattered throughout Oahu cared for the wounded.
Sadly, Petway was not among those wounded. He perished just 20 days shy of his 24th birthday. Jacobs also noted that at the time of the attacks, his uncle was anticipating a month-long furlough following his re-enlistment in the Navy. He was, however, one of the 35 whose remains were initially identified and buried at Oahu’s Nu’uanu Naval Cemetery and Halawa Naval Cemetery. Eventually, over 400 of Oklahoma’s sailors would be buried at 52 locations spread over the two cemeteries starting on December 9, 1941, through June 27, 1944. The burials coincided with efforts to upend and salvage the ship.
Jacobs noted during the interview of how his family was notified of his uncle’s death and noted “I think they got a telegram [about his death]. Other than that, my grandmother was beside herself. Greatly depressed.” He noted that his grandparent’s marriage eventually dissolved, in part because of the devastation that fell upon the family in the aftermath of his uncle’s death.
Repatriation stateside did not begin until the cessation of hostilities; a process which precluded and ultimately extended the mourning of families. Since Petway was one of the first to perish in the first attack on the U.S., his remains were among the first to be disinterred and brought to Oahu’s Schofield Barracks. From there, his remains, along with caskets containing 3,012 deceased service members were loaded aboard the Army transport ship, USAT Honda Knot.
Honda Knot was a C1-M-AV1 type merchant ship, one of over 200 built for the US Maritime Commission during World War II. The 338-foot-long cargo ship was originally constructed to transport cargo; however, on this occasion, she was assigned the solemn role to transport the first sets of remains to the West Coast as part of the Army’s operation to bring home deceased and buried servicemembers from overseas. The operation would transport over 233,000 deceased service members home at the end of the war, commencing in 1945 and ending in 1951.
Honda Knot departed Oahu on September 30, 1947. As was custom, every ship at Pearl Harbor brought their flags to half-mast and their crews rendered honors as the ship departed. The transport steamed at a top speed of 11 knots and reached San Francisco on October 10, 1947. Records indicate that an aerial escort of 48 fighter planes flew over the vessel before dipping their wings and banking away. A Coast Guard Cutter along with a Navy warship escorted Honda Knot to her anchorage. Waiting on shore was a crowd of thousands of civilians and service members, many were family members of the deceased. Records show that a memorial service led by San Francisco’s Mayor, Roger Lepham followed; the service was attended by then Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan and General Mark Clark, Commandant of the 6th U.S. Army Corps.
Honda Knot’s arrival was the first of the Army’s Mortuary Fleet to repatriate fallen servicemembers. The mortuary fleet, comprised mainly of WWII era Liberty and Victory ships, would bring home fallen service members from all corners of the globe. Transport to the East Coast and subsequently to Hampton was arranged via rail. The Army’s Transportation Corps operated 118 specially modified mortuary rail cars. They were originally built by the American Car and Foundry in Wilmington, Delaware as hospital cars to transport the wounded. Their modifications included roller racks to allow for the ease of moving caskets, reinforced door locks, overhead hoists, and steel planks bolted over their windows.
The Army dispatched this fleet of mortuary trains nationwide, which would transport the deceased to one of 15 quartermaster depots for final transport and burial. Records would indicate that the Army did not regard the deceased as cargo, but instead as passengers included a Passenger List, Deceased manifest with the names and ranks of each deceased service member on board.
Records indicate that Petway’s casket arrived via rail to the Charlotte, North Carolina Quartermaster Depot in the middle of October 1947. Ironically, the quartermaster depot was a mere 3 hours away from Petway’s birthplace of Wilson, North Carolina. The sprawling facility spanned some six warehouses over 72 acres and was operated by the American Graves Registration Service. Records indicate that each Quartermaster Depot had a military detachment who would escort each set of remains to their final burial place; in-fact many servicemembers re-enlisted after the end of the war specifically for that role.
Records show that Petway’s remains arrived in Hampton sometime around October 21-22, 1947. A newspaper article at the time, with the headline Five War Dead From This Area Brought to U.S, details Petway’s arrival and subsequent burial. The article lists Petway’s next of Kin, “Wiley Petway, of 428 West Twenty-Seventh Street, Norfolk,” Jacob’s grandfather.
Another newspaper article from the time shows the headline War Hero’s Funeral at Hampton Tomorrow. The article reads:
“Funeral services for a heroic victim of World War II will be conduced graveside in the National Cemetery at Hampton tomorrow [October 24, 1947] at 1:30 p.m.
The body of Wiley James Petway, Boiler Maker second class, U.S.N., who was killed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, arrived this afternoon after a long journey homeward from the Pacific. He was aboard the U.S.S. Oklahoma, awaiting transportation home for a 30-day furlough after having decided to re-enlist for another four years. He was the son of Mr. and Mrs. W.E. Petway, 428 West Twenty-seventh street.”
The article, which was kept, showed that arrangements for the funeral were made by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 3160 and Phoebus Post 3219.
Jacobs shared a photo of him graveside when he was 5 years old next to his uncle’s headstone in Hampton. He remembered, “that particular day. My mom, my aunt, my cousin and myself and maybe my sister. We remember we took the ferry across to the cemetery. They must have thought that we were going to the cemetery because I was in a suit. It wasn’t anything special, it was time for them to go and visit him. It wasn’t something we did all the time because the tunnel had not been built.”
Jacobs concluded the interview about his uncle and noted “I don’t know why he went into the service. I don’t if he decided if the military was a job and it was a way out of North Carolina. I don’t know if he was patriotic and if there was a call to defend our country. I know what was important is that he went in, he served his country with honor, and he paid the ultimate sacrifice.”