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A Trimble County man was among more than 2,400 Americans who were killed in the Japanese attack on U.S. military installations in and around Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, 70 years ago this month.
The Trimble Democrat, on Thursday, Dec. 18, 1941, in giving reports of several local servicemen known to be in the combat zone at the outset of World War II, carried the following report: “Two Lawson boys, C.H. and Irvin, when last heard from were said to be stationed on a warship near Honolulu, and it was rumored in Trimble County last week that one or both of these boys were among the casualties. However, there has been no official confirmation of this report. The Lawson boys live in the northern part of the county.”
Milton resident Fred Lawson visited this office after reading our “Day of Infamy: 70 years ago today” story on the front page of the Dec. 7, 2011 issue of The Trimble Banner. Fred wanted to correct some errors in the 70-year-old newspaper story about the two “Lawson boys” mentioned in that account. The two brothers serving in the Pacific Theatre at that time were Willard Irvin Lawson, who went by Irvin, and Albert Lawson—not C.H. Lawson. The two men were sons of C.H. and Gertie Lawson of Milton. C.H. was known to most Trimble Countians in those days as “Cud” Lawson. Cud and Gertie also had three daughters and an older son, William Thomas Lawson, who was Fred Lawson’s father.
According to Fred Lawson, his uncles were serving in the U.S. Navy at the outset of the war, Albert aboard a submarine and Irvin aboard the battleship U.S.S. Oklahoma, which was stationed at Pearl Harbor and in port on the day of the attack.
Fireman 3rd class Irvin Lawson was among 2,166 Navy and Marine officers and enlisted men serving aboard the U.S.S. Oklahoma on Dec. 7, 1941. The ship was actually supposed to still be out to sea patrolling in a circle around the Hawaiian Islands. But along with all nine of the battleships in the Pacific fleet, the Oklahoma was advised that there was to be an admiral’s inspection on Monday, Dec. 8. Due to the upcoming inspection the Oklahoma crew was on shore leave Saturday night, the 6th of December, knowing that on Sunday they had a full day of work getting the ship ready for the admiral’s visit.
Based at Pearl Harbor since Dec. 6, 1940 for patrols and exercises, the Oklahoma was moored in what was to become known as Battleship Row on that fateful Sunday morning when the Japanese attacked. Moored outboard alongside the U.S.S. Maryland—the Maryland being moored closest to Ford Island—the Oklahoma’s port side was left exposed to Japanese torpedo planes.
When the attack started around 8 a.m. on Dec. 7, many of the crew were sleeping it off in their racks below decks and never made it up to the main deck before the ship rolled over. Oklahoma took three torpedo hits almost immediately after the first Japanese bombs fell. As she began to capsize two more torpedoes struck home, and her men were strafed with machine gun fire as they abandoned ship.
Her hull’s port side was opened almost completely from below the forward gun turret back to the third turret, a distance of over 250 feet. She listed quickly, her port bilge struck the harbor bottom, and she then rolled almost completely over. Within 12 minutes after the attack began, she had rolled over until halted by her masts touching bottom, her starboard side above water, and a part of her keel exposed. When the ship rolled over men were trapped alive in an upside down world of total panic and chaos.
The trapped men started banging on the bulkhead trying to get the attention of passing small boats. On the 8th and 9th of December after cutting holes in the exposed bottom of the Oklahoma, 32 men were pulled out alive. Banging continued through Dec. 10 but nothing could be done. The sound was coming from below the water line and the sailors standing watch over the Oklahoma could only wait and listen until the banging stopped and the trapped sailors suffocated.
Fred Lawson said his grandparents were notified that their son was missing in action following the attack. A search through the Trimble newspapers of 1942 gave no obituary information although the sailor was presumed dead by the Navy. Four hundred bodies were recovered from the ship but only 35 could actually be positively identified. Irvin Lawson’s remains were among those never identified. Most of the remains were buried in a mass grave at the Punch Bowl National Cemetery in Hawaii, with no markings of the crewmembers’ names to tell who is interned there. A stone marker now identifies the gravesite as the resting place of USS Oklahoma crewmembers.
The Oklahoma was righted in 1943, but unlike most of the other battleships damaged in the Pearl Harbor attack, she was never repaired and returned to duty. Instead, Oklahoma was stripped of her guns and superstructure, and sold for scrap. She sank while under tow to the mainland in 1947.
These 70 years later, many Americans are familiar with the sacrifice of more than 1,100 men who died on the U.S.S. Arizona and the beautiful memorial that stands over her resting place. Few remember the men of the U.S.S. Oklahoma whose sacrifice was just as complete and honorable.
Today, Irvin Lawson’s sacrifice is remembered by the grateful people of his native Trimble County, his name among those on a bronze marker commemorating those county residents who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country in World War II on the stone war memorial in the courthouse square.