He ʻaloʻalo kuāua no kuahiwi.
One who faced the mountain showers.
(A brave person.)ʻŌlelo Noeʻau, 541
The story goes that my dad, Thomas James OʻConnor, was playing cards on a 24-hour pass when the attack on Pearl Harbor began. He was not on his ship. For years that’s pretty much all I knew about my dad and WWII. It was long after his death that my mom sent me a copy of his service record. With that and the internet I was able to cobble together something of my father’s 30-year naval career as an enlisted man.
By December 7, 1941, dad had already served over 10 years in the Navy. He was almost 30 years old when the bombs began to fall that morning. Born in Chicago, orphaned as a child, he had to make his way in the world with an 8th grade education. The Navy must have seemed like a good career opportunity. His first ship was the USS Oklahoma where he started as a Seaman 2nd class in 1932 and left in 1938 as a Fire Controlman 3rd class. Three years after my dad left, the Oklahoma was hit by Japanese torpedoes at Pearl. The ship capsized. 429 men were killed. I wonder if my dad knew any of those men. The USS Oklahoma would never sail again – her parts were later salvaged.
Between 1938 and 1941 Dad served aboard the submarines USS Perch, USS Salmon, and USS Holland, and the destroyers, USS Jarvis, USS Ralph Talbot, and USS Blue. On December 7th, he was a Chief Fire Controlman aboard the USS Reid. Only he wasn’t on board at the time. I’m not sure what he did that day. I can’t imagine he made it back to his ship. It must have been pure chaos. I know that my mother, who was 15 years old at the time, was in the yard of her home in Wahiawā. She told me she saw the planes emblazoned with the Rising Sun flying overhead. Her father, who had retired from the Army, worked in Civilian Ordnance at Schofield Barracks. Her two brothers were students at Kamehameha School and my grandmother told me that they borrowed the hearse from a local mortuary to help ferry the wounded to hospitals. What happened that day changed all their lives and put my mom and dad on a trajectory that would culminate in their meeting each other in Honolulu and later marrying at Kawaiahaʻo church in 1953.
The USS Reid is credited for being the first destroyer to bring down a Japanese bomber during the attack on Pearl Harbor. During my dad’s service on the Reid from June 1941 to March 1942, they escorted convoys throughout the Pacific including convoys between Pearl Harbor, San Francisco and Alaska. They escorted ships to Midway Island. After my dad left the Reid she continued to patrol and perform escort duties. The USS Reid would eventually receive 12 Battle Stars for her service during WWII. She met her end on May 13, 1945, in the waters of Leyte when she was struck by 7 kamikazi planes. Luckily, the 150 men on board were rescued. Dad served on one other ship after the Reid – the destroyer USS Frazier from July 1942 to February 1943. Among other duties, the Frazier guarded transports to Guadalcanal. One of the other stories my father told us may relate to his service aboard the Frazier. He told us, as his ship was pulling out of port, another one was coming in. A sailor on the other ship recognized dad and held up a Bible. He said, “O’Connor, do you have one of these? You’re gonna need it where you are going!”
By April 1943 my dad was no longer assigned ship duty. From that point on, he served at the Naval Receiving Station, Submarine Chaser Training Center, and the Naval Base in San Pedro, CA; the Naval Receiving Station in San Francisco; ending up at the Pearl Harbor Receiving Station, where he attained the rank of Chief Petty Officer. He was 41 years old. He would later serve in the Fleet Reserve and retire to Washington, D.C. with my mom in 1953. (They wanted to move to Virginia, but they were considered a mixed-race couple, and that was illegal in Virginia at that time.)
My dad never talked about the war – at least not to us. He would talk with other Navy retirees, and by chance we moved next door to one of the survivors of the USS Arizona and the two men would often grab a beer and sit together out on the lawn. We never disturbed them. I used to think he just didn’t want to talk to us about the war. After he died my mom said he thought we weren’t interested. That makes me so sad. One long-lasting mark my dad left was a holdover from being a submariner. My parent’s bed had a headboard made of intertwining circles. It had a section worn away by my dad’s left hand where he held on fast while he was sleeping.
Pearl Harbor is a defining moment in the history of my family, as it probably is in any baby boomer family where a parent served during the war. In my case, my dad served in the Pacific while my mother and her family experienced life in Hawaii under martial law. My mother’s oldest brother went right into the Army after he graduated Kam School. His younger brother also joined up after the war. Both would leave Hawaii and only one would return to live. My mother’s youngest sister joined the air force in the early sixties and has lived on the US continent since she was a child. A third sister was married to an Army man and spent many years in Europe, eventually retiring to Texas. Mom’s family was spread all over the world, and that might explain why we never really knew each other very well. We were all part of the Hawaiian diaspora, but I don’t think we thought of it that way. We were brought up as Americans. But we also knew we were Hawaiians. The culture in the house was Hawaiian, and when my grandparents left Wahiawā to move in with us in Maryland, Hawaii came right along with them. Mom worked as a secretary, opened a hula studio, was an active member of the Hawaii State Society in Washington, D.C. and supported statehood for Hawaii, something she was proud of. But towards the end of her life she questioned if statehood was good for Native Hawaiians.
In 1963, Senator Daniel Inouye suggested to President Kennedy that the new Benjamin Franklin-class ballistic missile submarine currently under construction should be named after King Kamehameha the Great, the first king of Hawaii, in recognition of Hawaii’s entrance into the US as the 50th state. Prior to the launching of the USS Kamehameha, the Hawaii State Society reached out to international artist and professor at the University of Hawaii, Dr. Jean Charlot, who agreed to paint the portrait of Kamehameha for the Society to present at the launching. Twenty-eight members of the Hawaii State Society, including my mom, dad, and grandmother, gathered in the Caucus Room of the Senate Office Building for a viewing of the portrait in November 1965. My grandmother chanted in Hawaiian a prayer for the safety of the vessel, the officers and the crew of the USS Kamehameha. Our cousin, Claire Bowman Graham, Chairwoman of the Portrait Committee, gave a short talk about the work of Dr. Charlot and read excerpts from Admiral H.G. Rickover’s letter about why King Kamehameha was an appropriate name for an American submarine. (The text of his letter, published in Washington, D.C.’s Evening Post is below.)
I look at my dad in the picture of Kamehameha’s portrait above and I wonder how he felt – this retired Chief Petty Officer, with his Hawaiian family, sharing the stage with the Secretary of the Navy. His mother-in-law chanting in ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi in the Senate Building in 1966. My mom, a hula dancer from Wahiawā, whose high school days were cut short by the war – and whose stenographer skills found useful employment as a civilian working for the US Army.
Puʻuloa – Pearl Harbor. Lots of emotions. It was the carrot the pro-annexationists used to court the US Government after the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893. As a territory of the US, pro-American haole sugar growers would be able to ship their product to the US without tariffs. For the US, Pearl Harbor was invaluable in the pursuit of American political and military interests in the Pacific.
This started out as a story about my father. I realize now that it’s a story about the confusing nature of my identity as an American and a Hawaiian. In an era of identity politics it’s a dangerous place to be. It was much easer to navigate before I started studying Hawaiian history and the effect of colonialism on Hawaii Nei and her people. I look to my first teachers, my dad, my mom and my grandmother for wisdom and strength.
My dad, mom, grandmother and grandfather are no longer with us. Grandmother Abbiegail Kunane McMillen is buried at Fort Bliss National Cemetery along side her daughter Moana Weaver and her son-in-law, Earl Weaver. My grandfather Frank McMillen, mother, father and my mother’s brother Belden Palea McMillen are buried at Arlington National Cemetery.