Remembering Pearl Harbor

On December 7, 1941, a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor killed 2403 Americans, wounded about 1100 and destroyed ships, planes and harbor infrastructure. December 7 became “a date that will live in infamy,” like September 11. This week’s news has carried stories about those who died at Pearl Harbor, as well as the few who live to tell about their experiences.

JLHAmong those who perished that Sunday morning was my father’s 20-year-old cousin, Jimmie/Jimmy Lee Henrichsen, who served as a Seaman Apprentice (E-2) on the USS Oklahoma. Navy records reflect the spelling of his name as “Jimmie” while other documents, including the family, spelled it “Jimmy.”

News accounts published in the (Sioux Falls, SD) Argus Leader and (Huron, SD) Daily Plainsman in early 1942 give us these facts:

Jimmy enlisted in the Navy in June, 1940, shortly after graduating from Platte (SD) High School. He reported to the Great Lakes naval station for training and was later assigned to a ship, the ill-fated Oklahoma.

Jimmy’s parents, John and Alma Henrichsen, received a telegram from the government on December 21, 1941, to report him missing. Their last communication from Jimmy had been a package likely mailed on December 5, two days before the Pearl Harbor attack.

Following are excerpts from a recent story about another Oklahoma sailor written by Barbara Demick of the Los Angeles Times:

…the Oklahoma suffered five torpedo hits, capsized and rolled over with its mast touching the bottom. By the time crews salvaged it two years later, the nation was in the thick of World War II, and nobody had the time, inclination or technical means to sort out the entangled remains of the 429 dead crewmen…

When the ship was turned upright and drained of water in 1943, the salvage crew “literally just shoveled the remains out,” said Natasha Waggoner of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

Then workers did something that modern forensic scientists find inexplicable. They sorted the skeletons by like body parts. “They had been underwater for two years so there was no flesh left. They put skulls with skulls, arm  bones with arm bones,” Waggoner said. The various body parts were buried as unknowns in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific…

In 2015 Defense officials issued an order to disinter Oklahoma remains in an attempt to make individual identification of the 388 unresolved casualties. The remains are undergoing forensic testing, and identifications occur on an ongoing basis. Dee Dee King works as the contract professional genealogist doing the research to identify the remains and confirm eligibility of living relatives who can direct disposition of the remains. You can read more at her website:

John Henrichsen Family, about 1923.                       Seated are Alma, Jimmy and John Henrichsen.

John Henrichsen Family, about 1923.
Seated are Alma, Jimmy and John Henrichsen.

Back to Jimmy’s story. From family lore I knew that Jimmy had been adopted into the John Henrichsen family. Dee Dee King’s website also cites this fact and notes that his “biological family could not be identified.”

I’ve always been curious how John and Alma Henrichsen, who lived their entire married life in central and western South Dakota, came to adopt a baby born in Iowa. Over the years I’ve asked questions of family members but never received a definitive answer.

In both the 1930 and 1940 U.S. Federal Censuses, Jimmy’s place of birth is shown as Iowa. His birth date is consistently reported as February 19, 1921. I’ve been unable to find an official record of his birth. I don’t know the names of his birth parents although I assume they were unmarried. I learned Iowa county registrars were “not authorized by law to have records of single-parent births prior to July 1, 1995.”

There may be living relatives (e.g., half-siblings), but I doubt anyone knows they share genetic material with Jimmy Henrichsen.

Consequently, not only was Jimmy cheated out of the chance to live a full life and grow old by the bombing, his remains will never be among those brought back home to be buried.

Before and during WWII several members of the extended Henrichsen family, including John and Alma (and my Henrichsen grandparents), were involved in operating the Gann Valley (SD) telephone exchange. In March 1942 Alma Henrichsen suffered a “stroke of paralysis while at her board,” undoubtedly precipitated by the sadness and stress of losing her youngest son. After time in a sanitarium she recovered enough to return home, but I don’t believe she ever returned to her work at the phone company or to full health.

Today we remember the immense sacrifices at Pearl Harbor.

Thanks to my friend Lois Mackin for her assistance with historic details. Thanks, too, to David Rencher who shared this excellent tribute on the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor:



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