“The sounds and the smells disappear ahead… There is only endless darkness without width or depth and a blue sea of blood at the bottom from where the suffering of countless people can’t be heard above.”
—Dogura Magura, Yumeno Kyosaku, 1935
I don’t think my mother ever recovered from an article that appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on this day in 1942. The newspaper had just received the Navy’s third casualty list since the U.S.’ entry into World War II and reported on page 13 that five local enlisted men were officially listed as “missing in action.”
Seeing the name “Quartermaster Robert Arthur Williams, son of Mr. and Mrs. John W. Williams of 604 Fahnstock Ave.” and the photo of him that accompanied the article had to leave my mother wishing she could join him at the depths of the Indian Ocean or buried on a remote atoll in the East Indies. Instead, she would put him at the center of the one, big secret she always kept from my father: She had named me after her first love.
My mother met Bob in the choir at church and he quickly restored the self-esteem and stability she had lost during the Great Depression. In a memoir she typed out after my father’s death in 1974 and then stashed away unseen to others for the 25 remaining years of her life, my mother presents Bob as “an immigrant from England, the original home of my Fuller ancestors and whose king, my Uncle William had said, could have saved America from the Depression had we remained loyal to the crown.”
The memoir recalls Bob “with a lock of his blonde hair falling into his eyes while playing Wagner’s Song to the Evening Star (from Tannhäuser) during every Children’s Day at our church since I could recall.”
“After one particular evening’s rehearsal,” my mother wrote, “I could scarcely believe my own hearing when he asked if he could escort me home. We had just been singing All in an April’s Evening. It was really April and the gentle winds we had just been singing about were really abroad. I told him I lived in the country and had to take a bus, but he wanted to go with me and so it was. We had a chocolate Coke at Reymer’s while waiting for the bus and he saw me home safely which he did many times after that.
“Bob had a sense of humor unbelievable for an English boy who loved the violin. We would play so deliriously all afternoon but would show up at the Young People’s session at church by Sunday evening, then a great get-together for all the young people at someone’s house for a hilarious evening.”
After what my mother described as “a dream-like 10 months,” Bob called her one evening in 1940 and said he had to see her right away. “It was January,” my mother recalled. “I still have and love the gold band bracelet which he had bought me for that Christmas which was far beyond his financial ability to buy. He came to my home, told me to put on my heavy outdoor winter togs and we would walk in the snow for a while. The moon and star sparkled like polished silver in the cold, clear winter night and the half-frozen snow crunched under our feet— then he grabbed me in a bear hug and said that warmth and moment of love would have to last all of our lives.
“He broke into tears and explained that my father and my uncle had talked to him and were concerned about my serious interest in him and said that, for my good alone, he was to leave my social group so that I would be free to associate with people of better social standing and that since he came along, I had turned my attention completely to him and ignored all others. For two hours, we hung together in the snow and the cold and the night—our tears freezing into the ground beneath us. He was my first God-given beautiful love and I had to say goodbye since he had already signed up for four years service in the U.S. Navy and there was no turning back.
“Several weeks later, I had a letter from him saying that he was on his way into the waters of the Pacific—that he would still love me forever and that my last promise of my love following him wherever he would go—was like a guiding star in his life. That letter, I carried with me everywhere—for even years after my first marriage—it is still, as far as I know, hidden beneath the walls of a closet at the last home of my parents on Universal Road, Penn Township, Pennsylvania.”
If mercy followed the death of Bob Williams, it came in the form of my mother not knowing how bad he had it at the very end. His loss was a result of an encounter that was so horrific that neither side wanted to talk about it afterward. One side, apparently, didn’t want to admit mistakes; the other didn’t want to be held responsible for atrocities.
To gain just my basic understanding of what happened to Quartermaster Williams, I first had to overcome misinformation as well as a lack of information. Bob didn’t go down the way my mother said he did, but I wouldn’t know until later when I uncovered the one bit of information allowed the rest of Bob’s story to tell itself: the name of the ship he served aboard. My mother never mentioned the ship in her writings and its name was cropped out of the photocopied newspaper article she had glued onto one of her memoir’s pages.
My mother’s memoir claimed Bob died at Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941. That inaccuracy threw me off for years and left me wondering how she could have been so wrong about such a tragic event in her life. As yet, the explanation I lean toward is that she had probably tuned out the awful news that was arriving almost daily from the South Pacific during those first few months after the U.S. entered the war and then filed all that horror away afterward. I think her purpose was to prevent the specifics within the deluge of disturbing news from getting to her.
The Pearl Harbor claim felt corroborated within months of finding my mother’s memoir, I came across a Christmas card Bob had sent her from Honolulu on December 5, 1941— just two days prior to the Day of Infamy. It was a beautiful card featuring an illustration of Diamond Head as viewed from Waikiki and bearing the wishes, “Aloha from Hawaii!” Inside, simply, was a Merry Christmas inscription in Hawaiian followed by Bob’s signature. As much as the Christmas card from Honolulu made credible the Pearl Harbor claim, though, it bothered me that I couldn’t find his name on any of the Pearl Harbor casualty lists available online. It was well after I gave up and quit looking that I stumbled into the corrective information I was looking for.
The information I needed appeared on an old postcard that my mother kept concealed because, like so many other of her belongings, it produced memories of loss. I found the postcard somewhere it didn’t belong, undoubtedly, but it was nevertheless exciting to see that it was from Bob in the Philippines, dated September 5, 1941, and postmarked October 4, 1941. On the card’s cover is an illustration of two traditional Filipino Moro fishing boats. On the back, Bob writes (sic):
We’re out with the Floy Doy’s and the Chop Chop’s now, Janie!
We were 27 days from Honolulu to Manila, which is is plenty of boat ride even for me. My new home is a rollicking destroyer. My best to your family!
That “rollicking destroyer,” per the return address that Bob provided, was the WWI-vintage USS Edsall (DD-219, Clemson class). Finally, I had the name of his ship and with that information went online and learned instantly its fate. The details were as graphic as they were grisly.
The Edsall in those first few months of the war was part of an outdated and under-gunned Asiatic Fleet given little priority as it sailed far-flung waters for reasons that were more politically than militarily strategic. Nevertheless, off Darwin, Australia, on January 20, 1942, the Edsall became the first U.S. destroyer to participate in the sinking of a full-sized enemy submarine in World War II.
Less than a month and a half later, however, it was participating in a rescue mission south of Java when it sailed blindly within range of two cruisers and two battleships that were part of a Japanese task force. The Edsall was in an unsurvivable situation and the subsequent two-hour-long engagement was as messy as it was horrific.
The Japanese ships toyed cruelly with their hapless target, firing 1,335 shells at the Edsall with only one or two hits that caused only inconsequential damage. Japanese Vice Admiral Chūichi Nagumo tired of what was becoming a fiasco and ordered the coup de gras: three groups of airstrikes from 26 Type 99 dive bombers launched from the carriers Kaga, Hiryū and Sōryū.
The dive bombers’ 550-pound bombs brought the Edsall to a halt, then the Japanese ships resumed firing, ceasing finally when the American ship turned on its side and offered its red hull in defeat. A Japanese camera-man believed to be aboard one of the cruisers filmed about 90 seconds of the destruction. A single frame from that film was later used as a propaganda photo misidentifying the ship under attack as “the British destroyer HMS Pope.”
After the war, Japanese Imperial Navy officers aboard the cruiser Chikuma reported that a number of Americans were in the water after the attack, but the Japanese were operating under submarine alert and picked up only a few survivors before they broke for home base.
On September 21, 1946, several mass graves were exhumed at a remote locale in the East Indies, more than a thousand miles from the Edsall’s last known location. Two of the graves contained 34 decapitated bodies, six of which were the remains of Edsall crewmen.
The remains of Robert Williams are now with those of 17,000 other fallen Americans who rest at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines.
An appropriately titled book published in 2009, “A Blue Sea of Blood: Deciphering the Mysterious Fate of the USS Edsall,” author Donald M. Krehn tries to detail events leading up to the ship’s sinking, but he might as well have filled the pages with additional unanswerable questions about the unmentionable event.I know my mother saw the article that appeared in the Post-Gazette on May 15, 1942, because I eventually found the article she had clipped out and kept. The article carried the headline, “Five District men Missing in East Indies Naval Battles,” and referenced Bob under the subhead “Born in England.” The article explained, “Quartermaster Williams, 23, who was born in England and came to the United States when he was four years old, enlisted in the Navy in October 1939, about a month after Great Britain went to war with Germany. He has three cousins in the British Navy and two cousins in the Royal Air Force. He was an honor student at Wilkinsburg High School, where he was graduated in 1935. His last visit home was on Mother’s Day, 1940. He has one brother, Frank. His family was notified on March 19 that he was aboard the Edsall.”
It was not the newspaper’s first or last mention of Bob’s passing, though. “Williams, Robert A., Quartermaster, U.S.N., killed in action early in March, beloved son of John and Florence Williams and brother of Frank of 604 Fahnestock St.,” read a notice that appeared on page 29 of the March 26, 1942 edition.
Two days later, the newspaper followed up with slightly more detail in a two-paragraph announcement headlined, “Local Sailor Reported Lost in Ship Sinking”: “Robert Arthur Williams, 24, or 604 Fahnestock street, East End, has been reported missing since his ship was sunk in the southwest Pacific, his family learned yesterday. The youth’s father, John W. Williams, a sexton in the Calvary Protestant Episcopal Church, received a message yesterday that his son was presumed lost. Williams was an honor graduate of Westinghouse (sic) High School.”
Finally, at the end of a collection of Good Friday celebrations that appears on page 9 of its April 3, 1942, issue, the Post-Gazette announces plans to honor Bob: “At 8’o’clock tonight, at Calvary Episcopal Church, the choir will sing Brahms’ ‘The Requiem,’ dedicated to the memory of Robert Arthur Williams, Quartermaster, U.S.N., the first choir boy of Calvary to make the supreme sacrifice. Soloists are Clare Lynch, soprano; Herbert Ripeheart, baritone; Emerick Simboli, tenor. Accompaniments will be played by the Pittsburgh Federal Symphony, Donald Wilkins, organist. Also included is Dr. Harvey Gaul’s tone poem, ‘All Souls Day.'”
EDSALL WIKI: L. Ron Hubbard claimed he served on Edsall during World War II and was its only survivor. According to his story, he swam to shore after the ship sank and was there in the jungle during the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Of course, Pearl Harbor was bombed months before the Edsall’s sinking and the U.S. Navy has found no record of his service aboard the ship.