Thursday, December 2, 2021

The Uncle He Never Met: Norfolk Resident Recalls Relative Who Perished During Pearl Harbor Attack

By Max Lonzanida
HRNM Public Affairs Officer

A cigar box contains letters and telegrams from the West Coast and Pearl Harbor, newspaper clippings of the Japanese attacks at Pearl Harbor, and a locket with 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. Twenty-three-year-old Petway paid the ultimate sacrifice 80 years ago when his ship, USS Oklahoma (BB 37), sustained torpedo hits and capsized at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Michael Jacobs reads from some of the letters and telegrams from his uncle, Boiler Maker Second Class Wiley James Petway. (Max Lonzanida)
That uncle is interred locally at Hampton National Cemetery. Jacobs shared some of his insights on his quest to learn more about Petway’s life and service to our nation: “My uncle died eight 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 began as he laid out some envelopes on the table containing letters and telegrams Petway had sent home.
Wiley James Petway, shortly after enlistment in the U.S. Navy. (Courtesy Michael Jacobs)
Petway was born on December 29, 1918, in Wilson, North Carolina. Jacobs reflected on his family’s move, before his birth, to the Hampton Roads area: “You either farmed or you didn’t [in Wilson]. It was pretty much like that. That’s why it was a migration up to this area because the shipyard was really big. . . . The whole family migrated: grandfather, grandmother, aunt, uncle. Dad worked in the shipyard.” The family’s move to Portsmouth was tied to the influx of jobs at the Norfolk Navy Yard.

In the years leading up to 1941, Newport News Shipbuilding and Norfolk Navy Yard were bustling with new warship construction. Sixteen of the warships present at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 were constructed 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 Pearl Harbor.

Records show that Petway enlisted in the U.S. Navy on May 21, 1936. He first reported aboard Oklahoma 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. The battleship arrived at Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1940.
USS Oklahoma (Hampton Roads Naval Museum)
One letter, dated April 1938, describes Petway’s time on the West Coast. Jacobs read his uncle’s 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.”

On June 15, 1940, Petway married Gwen Evans in Yuma County, Arizona. Gwen, Jacobs noted, was the aunt he never met. 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: “It won’t be before about 6 more weeks when you and Gwen will be coming here [to 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 wedding present, along with his mother’s words, never reached Petway, as he was one of the 429 Sailors who perished when Oklahoma sank. On December 7, 1941, over 2,000 U.S. service members perished. The majority of those were the 1,177 U.S. Navy Sailors who died aboard USS Arizona (BB 39). At the time of the attack, USS 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 its twelve Babcock and Wilcox boilers. 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 its boilers, engine spaces, and magazines enclosed with 13.5 inches of reinforced armor belt. This reinforcement, however, was no match for the torpedoes dropped by attacking Japanese aircraft. Oklahoma bore the brunt of torpedo strikes and strafing runs and capsized.
USS Oklahoma, capsized at Pearl Harbor (NHHC)
Petway was aboard Oklahoma when the ship capsized, and he died immediately, just twenty days shy of his 24th birthday. He was one of the 35 Sailors 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 from December 9, 1941, through June 27, 1944. The burials coincided with efforts to upend and salvage the ship.

Jacobs discussed how his family was notified of his uncle’s death, noting, “I think they got a telegram [about his death]. Other than that, my grandmother was beside herself. Greatly depressed.” His grandparents’ marriage eventually dissolved, in part because of the devastation that fell upon the family in the aftermath of his uncle’s death.
Wiley Jacobs (father), Melba Jacobs (sister), Lydia Eason Petway (mother), Ann Jacobs (sister), Wiley James Petway (Courtesy Michael Jacobs)
Repatriation stateside began after the cessation of hostilities. Petway’s 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, it was assigned the solemn role of transporting 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 from 1945 to 1951.

Honda Knot departed Oahu on September 30, 1947. As was custom, every ship at Pearl Harbor brought its flags to half-mast and 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. 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 its anchorage. Waiting on shore was a crowd of thousands of civilians and service members, many of whom were family members of the deceased. San Francisco’s mayor, Roger Lepham, led a memorial service, which was attended by then Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan and General Mark Clark, Commandant of the 6th U.S. Army Corps.

Petway’s remains arrived in Hampton, Virginia, on either October 21 or 22, 1947. A newspaper article, with the headline, “Five War Dead From This Area Brought to U.S.,” detailed Petway’s arrival and subsequent burial. Another newspaper article titled, “War Hero’s Funeral at Hampton Tomorrow,” read: “Funeral services for a heroic victim of World War II will be conducted 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.”

Jacobs noted, “I don’t know why [my uncle] 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.”

Let us remember Wiley James Petway and all those who lost their lives during the attack on Pearl Harbor eighty years ago.

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