Howard D. Cromwell
USS West Virginia
Howard Don Cromwell was killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941
The following letter was sent to a representative at the USS Arizona Memorial by the brother of Howard Cromwell.
Rue L. Cromwell
July 5, 2000
Mr. Daniel Martinez
Dear Mr. Martinez:
I have been referred to you by Ms. Kathleen O’Connor, National Archives and Records Administration, Pacific Region, 1000 Commodore Drive, San Bruno, California 94066-2350. She said that you would be the most likely source she knew of to offer further assistance.
With no success I have been trying to identify the names of the 70 officers and seamen who in sealed compartments went to the bottom of Pearl Harbor with the U.S.S. West Virginia during the attack on December 7, 1941. These 70 bodies were recovered in tact from sealed compartments. A calendar there had been marked off until December 23, 1941.
Authorities at the National Archives and Records say they have no record of names of personnel involved. On the other hand, they concede that someplace there exists not only names and identification but also photographic records made at the time of recovery. I should emphasize that I have no interest in the photographic record, but I assume that an extraordinary sacrifice such as this should not be lost to history and that the participants should be appropriately remembered for their extraordinary sacrifice in service of country.
Let me review the chronology of events that have led to my quest.
December 7, 1941. News came of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. Except for reports during the day or two following the attack, the U.S.S. West Virginia was not mentioned regulary in public media. It disappeared from the listing of vessels confirmed as sunk.
About December 20, 1941. Undated telegram from Chester W. Nimitz (then a Rear Admiral, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation) to my parents to inform them that their son (my brother) Howard Don Cromwell, CM2c, Serial number 201 60 68, was lost in action. [Later correspondence used the phrase “missing in action.”] Admiral Nimitz indicated the event was in performance of duty and service of country, and he expressed his sympathy. Then followed: “To prevent possible aid to our enemies please do not divulge the name of his ship or station. If remains are recovered they will be interred temporarily in the locality where death occurred, and you will be notified accordingly.”
The above call for secrecy, possibly originating from the White House, was the obvious explanation for the limited mention of the U.S.S. West Virginia in the public media. This was a time when compliance and patriotic interest were strong. Self-interest and “right to information” were both placed below the good interest of the country.
[Acknowledgmnt to verify the contents of the telegram are offered to Dr. J. Jeffrey Crowson, by hobby a Navy historian and by profession a cllinical psychologist and researcher. Jeff Crowson, who did his doctoral research under my direction, assisted me (as next of kin) in retrieving my brother’s personnel file from Navy records. Jeff is now more recently a psychology researcher at the Navy Personnel Command NPRST in Millington (near Memphis) Tennessee.]
1942 or 1943. Personal effects were shpped home: a stained high school ring with both his initials HDC and some skin stuck to the inside of the ring.
Late 1946 or early 1947. My brother’s body was shipped home in a sealed casket, and a military funeral was conducted.
1953. While I was on clinical psychology internship at Chillicothe (Ohio) VA Hospital a graduate student, O. D. Murphree, from University of Cincinnati, came to the hospital for an extended period to conduct his doctoral dissertation research in EEG. Once during conversation with us he indicated that before entering graduate school he was a civilian welder, sent to Pearl Harbor dry docks to help open and repair sunken ships. He told us that when he cut open a bulkhead on the U.S.S. West Virginia a group of bodies fell down upon him who had been half standing, half leaning against the bulkhead. He said he had no doubt that they had been trapped alive in order to be in this position. This was a disturbing experience that gave him nightmares for many years. When I disclosed that my brother had been on this particular ship, he declined to give further details because of his own emotional reaction. After receiving his doctorate in clinical psychology, Dr. O. D. Murphree was for many years a research psychologist at Little Rock (Arkansas) VA Hospital.
December 7, 1991. During memorial recognition on national television of the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack a Navy veteran and survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack, reported the observation by himself and others of a clanking on the U.S.S. West Virginia. This clanking was observed from what was left above water as she sat on the bottom. The clanking sounded like someone beating on pipes or other metal. The clanking continued intermittently until December 21, 1941; aftrer that all was quiet. He offered his conclusion that personnel had been trapped below.
September 13, 1999. Again through the assistance of my former student, Dr. Crowson, I was sent the official history of the U.S.S. West Virginia from the time of its launching to the time of its scrapping (Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Volume VIII, pp. 222f). This document was generously provided to me by the Head, Operational Archives Branch, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Department of the Navy, in the Pentagon in Washington, D. C.
In this comprehensive official historic document is the following record: “During the ensuing repairs, workers located 70 bodies of West virginia sailors who had been trapped below when the ship sank. In one compartment, a calendar was found, the last scratch-off date being 23 December.”
The narrative continues about the vast repairs from damage to the port side, the refloating and rebuilding at the Puget Sound Navy Yard, then back in action at the Battle of Leyte Gulf, etc.
Thus, the marking off of calendar corresponds closely and reasonably to the report of clanking on pipes on the surface from December 7 until December 21.
2000. I now hear that talks are being made, Florida and elsewhere, at American Legion and VFW meetings by at least one individual to the effect that the government has not reported the story of the 70 trapped men on the U.S.S. West Virginia. I have been unable yet to get the details of this.
Kathleen O’Connor, who was sympathetic to my quest and called me on the phone several times, told me that you may be able to help. Actually, unless you can give me another lead, you are my last resort. I dislike going to senators and congressmen and veterans groups (pressure sources) for help. If there is any assistance you can give me, I would be most appreciative.
By the way, it has been mentioned often to me that a motivation for the “cover-up” (withholding of information) is that, as the order was given to flood the ship shoreside to avoid capsizing, no abandon ship order was given or monitored. Thus, some officials may fear embarrassment. While I can understand any individual or bureaucratic fear of this I would reject this notion with the following argument.
Considering the heavy fire and smoke on deck (owing greatly to layers of toxic paint) it was a remarkable and sound judgment that the order for flooding occurred. To prevent capsizing, such orders are well known. The effect of this particular order led to the unbelievable return of the West Virginia back before the war was over to participate admirably in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Moreover, the burning deck and conditions at the time of attack were so severe that there was little assurance that an attempt to reach deck and escape would have been successful. Thus, in the long run the embarrassment to the Navy is far greater to leave these 70 men unrecognized by name than to contemplate misdeed under the horrendous conditions. In summary, I reject any interpretation that the command under those conditions was other than heroic and brilliant.
[ In the above paragraph I refer to the seven or eight torpedo hits on the portside. As I understand it a computer analysis of pictures of the water waves motion in the harbor makes it clear that these hits originated from submarines rather than airplanes.]
Finally, I should emphasize that my primary quest is that some sort of appropriate historic recognition be given to these 70 men by name. If location of the bodies could give information that they were arising from sleeping quarters or at their battle stations, that would be of considerable interest. If, in fact, my brother is on the list, that would be of appreciative interest to me alone as his survivor. But the major issue is to recognize each individual for his extraordinary sacrifice. Not to do so would be a transgression of national and Navy honor.
Thank you so much for your attention. If you prefer to address me at home, you may do so, at: 1104 Prescott Drive, Lawrence, Kansas 66049. Phone (785) 841-0840.
Rue L. Cromwell