Remembering Pearl Harbor

by Richard H. Frank

December 7, 1957 was a day not much different from any other for those of us stationed at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois.  The company of recruits that I was a part of was in the process of finishing our basic training and preparing for graduation.

Our company Commander, Chief Boatswain’s mate John J. Barcus, was  a tough, seasoned veteran of World War II and Korea and in the final assignment of his career.  His facial features resembled those of the Actor Wallace Beery and his voice and mannerisms also were characteristically similar.

Throughout the three months of training under the scrutiny of Chief Barcus, each recruit under his charge grew to respect his knowledge, the service and above all, our Country.  The Chief never showed favoritism for any particular recruit under his charge nor did he fraternize  with the recruits when off duty or on a liberty pass.  His personal life was a mystery to all of us with one exception. That exception was that we knew he drove a brand new silver and black 1957 Chevrolet two door with a red interior.  He kept his car as spotless and sharp as he did his uniform, service ribbons and the gold hash marks on the sleeve of  his coat indicating his years of service.

On this particular December 7th, the Chief entered our barracks, removed his cap and motioned for the company to gather around the picnic table located in the center of the barracks upon which he was seated.  He went on to say that we, company 399, had completed our basic training and distinguished ourselves by winning the coveted “E” Flag for excellence.  He stated he was proud of us and that we too should be proud of our accomplishments as recruits.

He went on to say that for many career Navy men this particular day, December 7th, held a special significance. It was the beginning of a long and terrible war initiated by the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Imperial Navy on December 7, 1941 resulting in the loss of over 2500 American service personnel.  The Chief went on to explain that the date for him held a very personal significance as he withdrew a small piece of newsprint from his wallet.  The paper was yellowed but the print was clear as he read aloud the Death Notice from  his hometown newspaper reporting the death notice of 18-year old, Seaman John J. Barcus of the USS Arizona.

Chief Barcus carried this notice with him as a reminder of the events of that morning, December 7, 1941 at about 8:00 am and how lucky he was to be alive.

The Chief went on to tell us that he had the duty on that particular Sunday morning and had just finished setting up the altar for non-denominational Sunday worship on the fantail of the Arizona.

According to the Chief, he was in the process of proceeding below deck when the first wave of Japanese bombers struck the Arizona.  He stated there was mass confusion as General Quarters was sounded and the crew was ordered to battle stations.  He recalled the Arizona being hit and the explosion that followed and the order to abandon ship.

The Chief said he didn’t recall being frightened but that he needed to proceed below deck to his bunk to recover a new pair of boots he had purchased the previous evening in Honolulu while on liberty.  He said one of the Boatswain’s mates grabbed him forcing him overboard into the water covered with burning oil.

The Chief said the last thing he remembered as he hit the burning oil and water was that he could not swim.  Seaman John Barcus ,badly burned, somehow wound up on a nearby beach where he was found and carried to a civilian hospital near Pearl Harbor.  He was reported missing in action and presumed killed during the attack and believed to be entombed with 1177 shipmates still, to this day, aboard the Arizona .

John Barcus remained in the hospital for two weeks before he was able to identify himself to naval personnel and eventually return to duty.  According to Chief Barcus he carried his obituary in memory of his shipmates and all of those that gave their lives at Pearl Harbor.  He carried the scars of burns on his face as a reminder of that fateful day each morning as he looked into the mirror to shave.

Fifty three years have passed since Chief Barcus told us of his experience at Pearl Harbor. My attempts to establish what happened to the Chief have failed to find any record of his having been on the  Arizona’s ships roster, nor can I find a record of his having been at the training center in 1957. This fact may be due to my  inability to recall the proper spelling of his name, or just the accuracy of records kept 69 years ago.  When asked why he would have made up such a story, my answer is that I don’t think he did. There was nothing in his telling us what happened to make him out to be a hero, but only to honor the memory of those that served and died that day. According to unofficial records there are only 20 remaining living veterans from the Arizona in 2010. These men are members of a very special elite group of individuals.

I don’t know if Chief Barcus is among those alive today, or if he has been lost to us as some 800 veterans/day from WWII join the Almighty. Still, his memory is alive with those of us from Company 399 and all of  the young sailors trained by Chief John J. Barcus, USN.


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