Pearl Harbor Day
Not Just Another Day Anymore
By Dianne Lang (an abridgement)
As a baby boomer who missed World War II by a few years, I never thought much about how the war had impacted the older generation who lived through it. No one spoke much about those times, and I felt disconnected from that period in history.
Then everything changed. My mother, Marie Camp, was contacted by Robert Valley, Volunteer Coordinator of the USS Oklahoma families. Information had been uncovered by a researcher that led him to believe that the remains of my mother’s first cousin, Ensign Joseph Parker Hittorff, Jr. could now be identified. Previously knowing little beyond Joe’s name and that he died on the USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor, I had a lot of questions. My mother was able to give me some basic information as she is the family’s unofficial historian. She remembered some visits by Joe and his family to her family home on Birch Hill in Kent.
Joe’s sister, Marion, then 98 and in a nursing home (now deceased), had referred everyone to my mother as Marion felt she could not cope with all that might need to be done. We were informed that there were 27 “unknowns” buried in three grave sites. While the identities of the individual remains were not known, the researcher found paperwork indicating the names of all who were buried in each of the three graves. For some unstated reason, the anthropologist at the time refused to sign the necessary paperwork. What was needed was a DNA test to help in the identification process. After much red tape, we were able to coordinate with the military to obtain a DNA sample from Marion.
I began to try to find out as much as I could about Joe. His picture showed a handsome, serious young man. My mother had a copy of a hand-written letter from Herbert Rommell, a shipmate of Joseph’s on the Oklahoma. He provided some details of that fateful day. “When the alarm sounded, he (Joe) went to the engine room to get the ship underway. When last seen, he was in the machine shop, which is right above the engine room. The ship was hit by many torpedoes in rapid succession and keeled over rapidly. Some of the men down there abandoned ship, but Joe decided to stay and attempt to get the ship underway, and he went back down to the starboard engine room.” Herbert goes on to tell about what happened to himself and some of the others, but knew nothing further of Joe’s fate. Rommell in his letter said, “Maybe these additional details will make you sad—and it would have been better if I hadn’t written—but they should also make you proud. After all, we all must die, and what could be better, but for a fighting man to go in action. What counts is not when we must go, but how we go, and how we have lived. Joe was truly an officer and a gentleman. He was a good fellow—would come with us to the Officer’s Club or to the town’s night spots—but he was always a credit to himself, to his folks, and to the Navy.”
Further research indicated that Joseph was in the index of a book called Pearl Harbor Survivors by Harry Spiller. Obtaining a copy, I was shocked to find an account of Joe’s last moments. Ens. Adolph D. Mortensen authored the chapter on the Oklahoma’s fate. He talked about the chaos in great detail, telling of the torpedo hits and the general confusion about what was happening to those below decks. Although they had routinely practiced “man overboard” and other drills, no one had addressed when or how to abandon ship. “For the first time that day I saw the division officer, Ens. Joe Hittorff and our Warrant Machinist, Bill Goggins. Joe looked at me and said, ‘Abandon ship.’ I felt some relief. Finally someone over me had said it.” According to Mortensen, the ship was listing badly, and all the loose items and furniture were jumbled on the floor, making walking a challenge. Hatches were difficult or impossible to open because the ship was rolling rapidly onto its side. The water began rising, and only a few men were able to make their way out. “We went aft, Joe Hittorff, Bill Goggins, and I past the ladder which led to the first deck.” There was a small hatch opening, but men were lined up trying to squeeze through. “I turned my attention to making my way aft to Chief’s quarters. Hittorff and Goggins were just ahead of me.” They continued over to the port side where there were portholes, arriving there just as the ship quickly began to roll over and take on water. Apparently the Oklahoma had been moored to the USS Maryland as they lay in port. Fearful that the Maryland would be pulled over by the listing Oklahoma, the decision was made to cut the tethers. At this point, the Oklahoma went over rapidly until its mast hit the bottom. “The water continued to rise inside and the ship continued to slowly roll. I soon found myself treading water and watching the ship as it rolled slowly above my head. I looked around quickly and could not see Hittorff and Goggins. I assume that in time I averted my eyes and watched the ship. They both slipped beneath the surface and drowned. I was told later that neither could swim.” A few men who were able to tread water were now trapped with a small bubble of air. They managed to get a porthole open that was now below water. Diving down and helping each other, they were able to push individuals down and out of the porthole where they then bobbed to the surface covered with oil. At that point, they were either rescued in boats or swam to safety.
Many years passed while politicians debated, funding lagged, DNA labs were overtaxed, and officials were staggered by the sheer enormity of the task of identifying all of the Oklahoma remains. On March 7, 2016 our phone rang. Totally caught off-guard, it was the call we had been waiting for. Joe had been identified, and we would have a formal visit the first week of April. I was happy that after 74 years and 3 months to the day, the family had gotten word that Joe was no longer missing in action. We were nearing closure for Joe.
We have an extra spot in my mother’s family grave site here in Kent. Joe will be buried next to his aunt and uncle overlooking the Housatonic River. Just down the river a couple of miles is where Joe came up from his home in New Jersey on occasion and played as a youngster with his cousins. Some of his father’s Hittorff siblings had houses next to each other on Birch Hill. I also know our local veterans will see that his grave gets the proper recognition. Our extended family all seems content that this seems the best solution of all the options. Joe will be buried with full military honors in the Kent Congregational Cemetery on June 18, 2016 after his funeral at the church at 11:00.
As we were going to press, we received word that Marie Camp, a long-time and dearly loved friend of the Kent Historical Society, passed away. She will be missed.