Remembering Pearl Harbor – The Story of Gunners Mate Second Class John C. Pensyl

Helena (center left) at 1010 dock after the attack; Oglala has been towed astern where she capsized. Smoke clouds from the burning destroyers Cassin and Downes rise in the distance beyond Helena, while those from the battleship Nevada are visible to the right. The battleship California is down by the bow but has not yet sunk.

Their voices cry out from the past.

2403 Americans died from the attack on Pearl Harbor. Of that figure, 2,008 of them were enlisted with the Navy, 218 were members of the US Army, 109 were Marines, and 68 were civilians. While much is written about the event, we need to never lose focus on the men who were lost.

One such man was a young twenty year old from Pennsylvania named John C. Pensyl.

Pensyl of Altoona, was a Navy gunner’s mate that died aboard the USS Helena in the attack on December 7th 1941, a cruiser whose crew fought savagely to fight the Japanese air onslaught.

I can’t find anything about John’s life as a sailor. Since he was on the Helena as a Second Class, he had to have been in the Navy for more than a year. We will learn about his story in three parts. Part one is the newspaper article about his grieving mother and Fiancée. Part two is about the ship he served on, its Pearl Harbor story and its final tragic story. The most tragic part of the story related to John is buried in the words of a Deck Seaman from Arkansas recorded on an anniversary story a few years ago. The third part is about John’s return to the mainland and its significance.


From the Washington Evening Star on January 7, 1942:

Returned Gift Ends D. C. Mother’s Hope for Son in Hawaii

She Had Refused to Believe Notification of Death from Navy Department

The faint hope that Mrs. Ruth Pensyl, 2037 P street N.W., had held that her son, Gunner’s Mate John Campbell Pensyl had survived the attack on Pearl Harbor flickered out yesterday when the Christmas gift she sent him came back marked “Dead – Return to Sender.”

Several days after the Japanese assault on Hawaii, Mrs. Pensyl was notified by the Navy Department that John, 20, was among the American bluejackets who lost their lives that fateful December 7. She refused to believe it, hoping against hope that there had been a mistake, perhaps in identity.

Shipmate Writes Mother.

But yesterday her Christmas gift, a watch, was returned in the mail with that blunt direction on the package. She also received a letter from one of John’s shipmates. It said. In part:

“I cannot write in detail how it happened, but I doubt if John knew what hit him as he died instantly. He is temporarily buried at the Nuuana Cemetery, but when possible or after the war is over, all those buried here will be brought back to the states.

“If there is anything I can do please let me know. The turret crew and John’s division wish you to know that they send their regrets and vow that John shall not have given his life in vain.”

Sweetheart with Mother

With the widowed Mrs. Pensyl at her home today was a pretty 18- year-old girl to share her grief. She is Miss Margaret Wertz of Altoona, Pa. John’s high school sweetheart and the girl he had intended to make his wife when he came back from Hawaii.

Another of John’s shipmates from Altoona had written to Miss Wertz, asking her to go to Washington and help Mrs. Pensyl in any way she could.

“I’m afraid there isn’t much any one can do.” the girl said. “I only wish I were a man and could get my hands on those Japs!”

According to the Helena’s (CL-50) Web Site, PENSYL, John C., GM2c, 250-50-38 USN, WOUND, GUNSHOT, Thorax. Died, 12-7-41

66 were wounded and 34 were killed, on the Helena, when hit by a torpedo.

Ford Island on the Day of the Attack

The Day of the Attack

Arkansan recalls chaos on 1941’s day of infamy

by Dave Hughes | December 7, 2018 at 4:30 a.m. (Arkansas Democrat Gazette)

“FORT SMITH — Harold Mainer was standing at the stern of the light cruiser USS Helena docked at Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, about to go ashore to celebrate a friend’s birthday.

The 20-year-old first-class petty officer from Paris, Ark., watched as a bomb fell into the water, then two more hit the airfield at Ford Island. An airplane flying over the Helena nosed up and began to climb, revealing the Japanese Rising Sun emblem on the wing.

For Mainer, World War II had begun.

Today Mainer, 97, will be honored as a Pearl Harbor survivor at a ceremony at the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum on the banks of the Arkansas River in North Little Rock.

Mainer will be reunited during the ceremony with the Hoga, a harbor tug that also saw action in the Pearl Harbor attack and the days after. The museum acquired the tug and is restoring it as a museum exhibit. The Hoga — a Sioux word meaning fish — will be opened to the public today for walk-through tours while restoration continues.

Mainer joined the Navy in October 1940 after spending two years with the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps at Cass in Franklin County. Although he had never seen an ocean, he had a practical reason for choosing the Navy over the Army.

“I wanted a clean bed and a hot meal,” he said, chuckling.

He went through boot camp in San Diego and was assigned to the Helena, but he had to hitch a ride on the battleship USS West Virginia to catch up with the Helena at Pearl Harbor.

Mainer was a deckhand. His general quarters assignment, or battle station, was on the shell deck where he helped load projectiles into the guns of turret four in the back half of the ship.

That’s where he ran immediately after the attack began, but the ship’s 6-inch main cannons were useless against the aircraft because the guns could not be elevated high enough to shoot at the planes, Mainer said.

The turret captain sent him on deck to help spot aircraft, and when he arrived on deck, the petty officer handed him a hose and told him to wash blood off the deck. Mainer said he asked who the blood was from, and the petty officer told him to just clean it off.

As he sprayed down the deck, a shoe washed up to him. The shoe had a shine on it, and Mainer said he knew there was only one person on the ship who could shine a shoe like that.

“Quick as I saw the shoe, I knew it was John Pensyl [a gunners mate],” Mainer said. “So I grabbed Chuck [the petty officer] around the arm and said, ‘That was John, wasn’t it?’ He said yes and now get busy and clean it up.”

Pensyl had been killed by shrapnel that tore away the top of his body, Mainer said. He was one of 33 men on the Helena who died Dec. 7 or in the following days from wounds suffered in the attack. Another 67 were wounded, according to records.

There was no time to think about lost shipmates or the danger around him, he said. Training took over, and he did his job.

But he had time to take in the destruction around him. Mainer said he saw the USS Arizona explode across the harbor from the Helena and the USS Oklahoma capsize.

The Helena was hit by a torpedo during the attack. It was moored against a dock, and a minelayer, the USS Oglala, was tied up next to it. The torpedo went under the Oglala and exploded against the Helena in the engine room.

The Helena was in shallow water so it didn’t have far to sink, Mainer said. But the concussion of the exploding torpedo knocked a hole in the wooden-hulled Oglala and the Oglala began to sink. Two tugs, one of them the Hoga, towed the Oglala away from the Helena so the Helena would not be pinned against the dock, Mainer said.

According to the Naval Historical Foundation, the Hoga and another tug also kept the damaged USS Nevada from blocking the harbor channel as it tried to steam out of the harbor. The Hoga pulled men out of the water and used the Hoga’s firefighting equipment to fight fires on the Nevada and on ships all along Battleship Row.

Mainer said he was never afraid during the attack until that night, when word passed around that more planes were coming in. They turned out to be American planes flying in from the mainland.

“You get scared when you have time to stop and think,” Mainer said.

Crews welded steel plates over the hole in the Helena and refloated it so it could return to the mainland for more permanent repairs, Mainer said. He said the ship returned to Hawaii around February and missed the battles of Coral Sea and Midway.

“After that, I was in every skirmish at every little two-bit island until July 6, 1943,” said Mainer, referring to the day the Helena was sunk in the battle of Kula Gulf in the Solomon Islands.

The Helena saw a lot of action during its part of the war. Naval records show that it was present in the battle of Guadalcanal on Nov. 13, 1942, when the light cruiser USS Juneau was sunk by an enemy torpedo, claiming the lives of the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, who had asked to be assigned to the Juneau together.

The Helena’s demise came from three torpedoes nine months later in a night action. Accounts say the Helena was aggressively firing her guns but was the only American ship in the battle that wasn’t equipped with flashless powder, which illuminated it as a target.

06 Jul, 1943 — Battle of Kula Gulf Around midafternoon on July 5, the Third Fleet learned that a “Tokyo Express” was en route south from Bougainville with Japanese reinforcements for the central Solomon’s. Rear Adm. Ainsworth’s Task Force 36.1, consisted of the light cruisers USS Honolulu (CL 48), USS Helena (CL 50), and USS St. Louis (CL 49) and four destroyers, making full speed to Kula Gulf to intercept the Japanese. It met the enemy force – ten destroyers, seven of which were being used as transports, under Rear Adm. Akiyama – a few minutes past midnight. In a confused action that lasts almost until dawn, Adm. Akiyama’s flagship, the Niizuki, was sunk and Nagatsuki driven ashore, where she was destroyed by US planes during the day; but the destroyer-transports succeeded in unloading their troops on Kolombangara, and USS Helena, was sunk by three torpedoes fired by the Suzukaze and Tanikaze.

Helena in action at Kula Gulf, seen from the light cruiser Honolulu. Note: Bright flashes of gunfire are due to use of older gunpowder for the main armament. These flashes gave the Japanese a target for their torpedoes.The first torpedo struck the front of the Helena and severed its bow. The second and third torpedoes hit midship and broke its back, Mainer said. After abandoning ship, Mainer said, he was in the water for four hours before another ship picked up him and others.

Many crewmen who were in life rafts drifted off and managed to land on an island. They were rescued two weeks later.

Of the 900 crew members on the Helena, about 300 were killed in the sinking, Mainer said.

The wreck of the Helena was discovered in March by an expedition sponsored by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Reports said the ship was in about 2,500 feet of water. The Helena’s designation “50” was clearly visible on the bow in the video that a submersible craft sent back to searchers.

Mainer said when he heard about the discovery, he thought about the men who were trapped in the ship when it sank.

Mainer was next assigned to the tugboat USS Munsee. At one point the Munsee was assigned to Iwo Jima during the battle there. Mainer remembers seeing American and Japanese soldiers lying dead side by side on the beach.

At the war’s end, the Munsee was assigned to patrol Tokyo Bay during the ceremony Sept. 2, 1945, when Japanese officials surrendered to the Allies on the battleship USS Missouri. Also on hand was the submarine USS Razorback.

After the war, Mainer took a job working for a grocer in Tulsa. He liked the job, but a friend who was a postal worker persuaded Mainer to apply for a post office job. He passed the test and went to work delivering mail in Fort Smith, something he did for 31 years, retiring in 1982.

Asked how the events of Dec. 7, 1941, affected him, Mainer said, “Physically, it really didn’t. You never get over it, but you don’t think about it. You have to go on.”

The Nuuanu Cemetery would not be John’s final resting place. He would eventually be brought to Arlington Nation Cemetery and be buried in a significant location.

The return of the Heroes:

A simple Service










From the Arlington Web Site:

A significant event occurred in the cemetery during a month’s time in late October and November 1947. Ten servicemen who died at Pearl Harbor were reburied in section 12 in the vicinity of McClellan Gate — nine were buried around this Armistice-Veterans Day timeframe.

First, John D. Buckley (grave 3080), Albert J. Hitrik (grave 3276) and Jack A. Pitcher of Michigan (grave 3526) were laid to rest, Nov. 7, 1947.

According to Holien, military families could request that loved ones killed in oversea theaters be reburied stateside, but the burials that autumn were no coincidence.

“Patriotism was still running high, and I’m sure these re-burials were done deliberately around the Armistice-Veterans Day holiday, so families could attend the services,” Holien said.

On the eve of Armistice Day 1947, Walter S. Brown (grave 3313), Stanley Dosick (grave 3296), Navy Lt. Comm. John E. French (grave 3060) and Michael C. Yugovich (grave 2811) became part of Arlington. Yugovich celebrated his 20th birthday four days before the 1941 attack that drew America into World War II.

In near vertical succession, Yugovich, French, Dosick, Scott and Brown now rest beneath the thick sod just inside the walls of the original cemetery.

The tragedy of youth cut short of a full life was one emotion that pulled at Larue during the time spent in section 12.

“[Some of] the men buried there were kids,” she said. “They were just into their 20s or late teens. They were buried in [vertical] rows, but not the [horizontal] rows you would think about.”

Navy gunner’s mate second class John C. Pensyl of Pennsylvania (grave 2855) and Illinois Sailor Arthur W. Russett were buried Oct. 30, and the final Pearl fatality who was laid to rest in section 12 during the time period was Earl W. Smith, on March 18, 1948.

The section 12, Pearl Harbor fallen are all located within a half block radius of each other in the middle of the section.

 I have added Section 12 to my Bucket list.

I want to go and pay homage to GM2 John C. Pensyl.

We can never forget the men who gave their all for this country. We can never forget Pearl Harbor.

 Mister Mac

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