Franklin Van Valkenburgh’s Pearl Harbor


By Meg Jones | May 25, 2018

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The Pearl Harbor attack caught America by surprise and led to our entry into the Second World War. Meg Jones tells us about the Milwaukee-born captain of the USS Arizona.

Franklin Van Valkenburgh spent his entire adult life training for war. And when that day came, Van Valkenburgh would be among the first to die.

He grew up in Milwaukee, the son of a prominent lawyer and when he left for the U.S. Naval Academy in 1905, Van Valkenburgh never really came home again. He moved up through the ranks, serving on many vessels ranging from battleships to submarine tenders.

In February 1941 Van Valkenburgh was assigned to what would turn out to be his last posting: The USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. It was Van Valkenburgh’s cruel fate to spend decades training for combat and die just 11 minutes into his first battle.

It’s true that America was caught by surprise when the Japanese attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. But it’s also true that the U.S. military was wary of Japanese aggression in the Pacific. That’s why Navy commanders moved the Arizona and the rest of its fleet from the west coast to Pearl Harbor. Like the other ship captains stationed at Pearl, Van Valkenburgh repeatedly trained his sailors and marines for battle. In a letter to his aunt one month before the Japanese attack, he wrote about the long hours he spent on the Arizona’s bridge putting his men through their paces.

“We never go to sea,” he wrote, “without being completely ready to move on to Singapore if need be… Our eyes are constantly trained westward and we keep the guns ready for instant use against aircraft or submarines whenever we are at sea. We have no intention of being caught napping.”

That’s just what happened, though. The Japanese attacked not at sea but while most of America’s Navy was in port. The USS Arizona’s band was on deck preparing to play the national anthem for the morning flag raising when the first torpedo bombers with rising sun emblems began to drop out of the sky. They swarmed like hornets over Battleship Row dropping torpedoes that streaked through the water blowing holes in ships where sailors were sleeping, eating breakfast and getting ready for shore leave.

When the Arizona’s air raid alarm sounded at 7:55 a.m., Van Valkenburgh was seen sprinting to the one place a ship’s captain needed to be – the bridge. As he emerged from the conning tower, Van Valkenburgh was hit by shrapnel that tore into his abdomen. He must have been in intense pain but he refused to be carried to safety. Instead, he stayed at his post directing the defense of his ship. Torpedoes rocked the Arizona but the death blow came from a bomb that penetrated the deck and ignited the ship’s forward ammunition compartment. Witnesses said it looked as if the Arizona leaped out of the water. A grainy color film shows a bolt of flame and black smoke blowing sky high as the ship exploded. It would become the iconic image of America’s first minutes of World War II. It was 8:06 a.m.

Van Valkenburgh’s body was never found. Only his Naval Academy class ring and two uniform buttons were recovered. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor and to this day he’s officially listed as missing in action. His name is on the large white wall at the USS Arizona memorial along with the 1,176 men under his command who died at Pearl Harbor. Perhaps most fitting for a man who spent his entire life in service, his name is not at the top of the list of Arizona casualties. It’s actually toward the bottom because the list is alphabetical. I think Franklin Van Valkenburgh would have wanted it that way.

(This story originally aired on December 7, 2016.)

Meg Jones

Meg Jones is a reporter with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the author of World War II Milwaukee.
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