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Sailors who died still ‘coming home’ 80 years after Pearl Harbor attack

Carmelo Milia, 93, of Troy retired as a colonel after a career in the U.S. Army, following graduation from West Point Academy. (Bill Laitner/ Detroit Free Press/TNS)

Eight decades have passed since the Japanese military attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor.

Since then, Michiganders lived through countless other calamities including many far closer to home — including last week’s deadly school shootings at Oxford High School, 35 miles north of Detroit.

Those with vivid memories of the attack on Dec. 7, 1941, are dwindling in number rapidly. There may be as few as 1,000 military survivors of Pearl Harbor left nationwide, according to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. Yet, the development of DNA techniques for identifying human remains has brought fresh drama to Tuesday’s observances of Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.

After the attack, hundreds of unidentified bodies were interred on Hawaiian soil. They stayed buried until 2015 when the Pentagon ordered that all “unknowns” be exhumed and tested. The result was that several Michigan men who died in the attack, at long last have, in the words of family members and fellow veterans, come home. A Michigan sailor was laid to rest Aug. 21 in Charlotte, his birthplace. Another was buried Oct. 27 in Berrien County. A third is scheduled to be buried Tuesday near Battle Creek, 80 years to the day that he died.

In the Charlotte burial, according to the website Naval History and Heritage Command, Ensign Francis Flaherty was serving on the battleship USS Oklahoma when it was struck by torpedoes fired from Japanese planes. The website says: “As the ship was capsizing, Ensign Flaherty remained in a gun turret holding a flashlight to permit others in the turret to see in order to escape. For his sacrificial heroism on that occasion, Ensign Flaherty was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.”

From Berrien County, Seaman 1st Class Wesley Graham also was serving on the Oklahoma. Graham became one of 429 crewmen lost when the big ship quickly capsized, according to the website. Seaman 1st Class Joe Nightingale was yet another of those who died on the Oklahoma. Struck by at least nine torpedoes, the Oklahoma rolled completely over, trapping hundreds of sailors inside her hull. After a funeral scheduled for Tuesday morning at Factoryville Bible Church in Athens, near Battle Creek, Nightingale is to be buried in nearby Fort Custer National Cemetery.

A total of 2,403 service members and civilians lost their lives in the attack, President Joe Biden said Friday, in a proclamation that called on Americans to “reflect on the courage shown by our brave warriors that day and remember their sacrifices.” The attack was a devastating military blow to the United States — but much more than that, said Jane Vieth, a recently retired professor of history at Michigan State University and an expert on World War II. The attack, arguably, was the one battle that more than any other determined the war’s outcome, around the world, because it brought the U.S. fully into a war that had been raging for two years — and which might have ended disastrously for the democracies of Europe without full American involvement, Vieth said.

In hindsight, it may seem inevitable that the U.S. and its “Greatest Generation” would join in the global fight. Far from it, Vieth said. Throughout the decade before Pearl Harbor, the vast majority of Americans favored staying out of all overseas conflicts, she said, in her new newly published book about the prelude to World War II. The book views Adolf Hitler’s diplomatic escalation and the war’s early months through the eyes of Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of President John F. Kennedy. Before the war, Joe Kennedy was the vehemently anti-war American ambassador to England, from 1938 to 1940.

In her meticulously researched 558-page book “Tempting All the Gods” ($59.95: Michigan State University Press), Vieth writes that when Americans finally demanded that their country enter World War II, they did so not because of anger over the bombing of cities in England that were namesakes of numerous American towns, and where innocent English-speaking civilians were dying in the German terror raining from the skies. No, Americans reversed their feelings “because of their outrage over Japan’s attack on the U.S. fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor,” she writes.

One day after the attack, the U.S. declared war on Japan. Three days later, on Dec. 11, Germany declared war on the U.S. Suddenly, Americans were engaged both in Europe and the Pacific.

Until then, most Americans had stuck doggedly to the isolationist views promoted by leaders of the “America First” movement, Vieth said. They included Detroit native and famed pilot Charles Lindbergh, who had visited Nazi Germany before the war and who widely shared his antiwar views, as well as his admiration for Hitler’s air force; and the Rev. Charles Coughlin, pastor of Royal Oak’s Shrine of the Little Flower Roman Catholic Church, who for years on radio broadcasts inveighed against war, and against Jewish people.

Everything changed literally overnight as the nation listened by radio to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt address members of Congress, beginning with what became one of history’s most famous lines: “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” At the end of his short speech, FDR called for the U.S. to respond with all of its military might.

Former Detroiter Dean Gregg, now 89 and living near West Branch, was 9 years old at the time.

“I remember my mother’s world flipping upside down with the radio news” about Pearl Harbor, Gregg said. His aunt, a sister of his mother, was in Honolulu “with my three cousins” because his cousins’ father, Capt. Darwin Martin, was stationed there as an Army officer in the Coast Artillery Corps, guarding Army installations at Pearl Harbor. It was days before Gregg’s family heard that their relatives were safe, he said. They later learned that his cousins and their mother had rushed to the safest place their father knew — his anti-aircraft gun emplacement, surrounded by sandbags.

Troy resident Carmen Milia, 93, retired as a colonel after a career in the U.S. Army, following graduation from West Point Academy. But when news broke of the Pearl Harbor attack, Milia had no notion of serving in the military. He was 13 years old and playing basketball with buddies on a Sunday afternoon in upstate New York, where Milia grew up.

“We were inside the gym and somebody came in and yelled, ‘We’re at war! The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor!’ We all looked at each other. Nobody knew where Pearl Harbor was,” Milia recalled with a chuckle.

These days, Gregg and Milia said they fear that today’s youth may be equally ignorant about Pearl Harbor. Keeping awareness fresh are military history museums around the country, including the small but popular UP Military Museum in Escanaba, whose website says it will hold “A Night of Remembrance” on Tuesday; as well as the Pearl Harbor National Memorial in Hawaii, operated by the National Park Service, which has a roster of special events listed online to mark the 80th anniversary of the attack.

Flags across Michigan flew at half-staff last week to honor the victims of the Oxford school shootings. Many will dip again Tuesday to mark the Pearl Harbor observance. Some communities, including Grosse Pointe Woods, call attention to the date on city calendars.

Grosse Pointe Woods City Manager Bruce Smith said of his visit last year to Hawaii, and to the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, “It was very moving” to see “the start of World War II.”


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