Mart resident Robert Storey Jr. can still recall the moment, six years after he left the Navy, when he walked up to the mother of his childhood friend and told her he had witnessed the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor that killed more than 2,000 people, including her son, George Parten Fowler.
“Mrs. Fowler? I just told her I’d seen the ship, and it was completely gone,” said Storey, who joined the Navy in 1939.
More than 1,100 Americans died on the USS Arizona when Japan carried out a surprise bombing attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, during World War II. Fowler was one of 83 Texans, and the first man from Mart, to die in the attack. His remains were never found, family and friends said.
Fowler was declared missing in action two weeks after the attack, and more than a month later he was officially declared killed in action at age 19. His family held a private memorial service at the time, and because of the chaos surrounding the situation, they never received the traditional folded American flag often given to the immediate relatives of a fallen soldier, said Calvin Jones, a longtime friend to the Fowler family.
Though Fowler’s mother and father have since passed, surviving relatives and friends will hold a communitywide memorial for Fowler at 6 p.m. Wednesday at First Baptist Church in Mart. The ceremony will not only honor Fowler, but commemorate the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor as well. His family finally will be presented with the folded flag, and Storey will serve as a guest speaker during the event, said Jones, who organized the ceremony and grew up in Mart.
“I would go into the historical room at the church and see his picture and his name. It was an eerie feeling, I guess, to see here was a guy who was a member of the church, the same Baptist church I’m in, and he was in the same Sunday schools and ran up and down the same halls, you know?” Jones said.
“Dec. 7 is a day that should be remembered. We don’t have any Audie Murphys. . . . We’re just a bunch of homegrown country boys who got out there and played football.
“I was lucky enough to go to Pearl Harbor in 1973 with my family, and we visited the Arizona memorial. It’s a true experience when you see 1,177 names on a granite wall and you see Mr. Fowler’s name up there and think, here’s a man who walked the same streets I did.”
Storey was on a heavy cruiser ship 200 miles off the shore from Pearl Harbor when Japanese fighter pilots dropped a 1,760-pound projectile onto the USS Arizona and attacked the naval base just before 8 a.m. Dec. 7, 1941. Ordered to stay at sea, Storey and his crew mates could do nothing but watch the tragedy unfold, he said.
Fowler was inside the Arizona when the projectile penetrated the three levels of the ship, ultimately causing the ship to sink.
“They wouldn’t let us come in that night. We had to stay out until the next day before we could come into Pearl Harbor,” Storey said. “When we were there, boy — it was a sad sight. Dead guys floating in the water, and all of our ships sunk. A buddy of mine looked over and said, ‘We’re about the only thing out here floating.’ He wasn’t far off.”
The Japanese fighter pilots managed to take out 20 vessels and more than 300 planes. Storey, a repairman, and his shipmates were ordered to be on standby if anything came up, he said. Right away, it was difficult to tell who had been killed and who hadn’t because smoke covered the base from one end to the other. The attack lasted at least two hours.
Storey’s cruiser eventually helped bring tired soldiers stateside, he said. He and his crewmates offered their own clothes and beds as they traveled back to San Francisco, and he went searching among the soldiers to see if the young boy had made it, he said.
“I knew George Fowler was on the Arizona. Matter of fact, I knew he was out there and another boy from Mart on another battleship was out there, but that boy had gone back to the states for some minor repairs on his ship,” Storey said. “George, he was a good guy. I knew him in school, he was a good kid.”
Fowler was assigned to Pearl Harbor as a seaman second class. Only 17, he had to get permission and signatures from his parents to enlist, Fowler’s cousin Dorothy Heflin said.
“This was the desire of his heart, and after much persuasion on his part, my uncle and aunt signed the necessary papers,” Heflin said. “The U.S. had not officially entered any conflict, and they were hopeful it would not come to that.”
The last time she saw Fowler was the moment he said goodbye to family, she said. She was about 6 or 7 at the time and was impressed by the young man who stood before her.
“This cousin, who never tormented and teased the younger cousins, appeared with a new dignity and, of course, was handsome in his white uniform,” Heflin said. “He had been busy with sports, homework, and scouting, and I never heard of any problems at school.”
Fowler was an athlete, playing football for Mart High School for two years, and became the fourth boy in Mart to become an Eagle Scout, the highest Boy Scout ranking, according to articles from the Mart Herald. Heflin was playing outside with friends when she heard news of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“News was not instant in 1941, and it was several days later when George was declared missing in action,” she said. “There was nothing further because of national security. There followed days of fear, hope, uncertainty and prayer, until the letter from the Secretary of the Navy arrived, declaring him killed in action.”
That was Jan. 27, 1942. The letter was two paragraphs long, and addressed to Fowler’s father.
“It is hoped that you find comfort in the thought he made the supreme sacrifice upholding the highest traditions of the Navy, in the defense of his country,” the letter read.
A difficult loss
Heflin is convinced Fowler’s remains are entombed inside the sunken vessel like many others. She can recall how the town came together, as small towns do, to offer love and support to her family and reach out in every way they could. But Fowler’s family was devastated, and the loss was difficult to deal with as the family became the center of attention during the holiday season in a sad way, she said.
But those memories are what keep Fowler alive, and they’re what Heflin and 54th District Judge Matt Johnson, Fowler’s first cousin once removed, cling to as a way to remember the hero, they said.
Fowler’s parents were Johnson’s aunt and uncle, and they didn’t talk a lot about their only son, Johnson said. They lived with the grief on their shoulders, and Fowler’s death was never something brought up during family gatherings, he said.
“My grandmother and grandfather always said he was a well-liked kid,” Johnson said. “I just remember the stories about him being such a good boy and that he wanted to go serve. (His parents) never talked about the weight of their decision, but my grandparents talked about how they regretted that decision for the rest of their lives.”
When Fowler’s parents passed in the ’70s, Johnson’s family helped sort through their belongings. Still a child at the time, Johnson was handed a box with Fowler’s name on it, and inside were old toys never disposed of by Fowler’s parents, he said. Johnson even spent part of his childhood playing with a wooden gun made for Fowler, but he admits he didn’t know the gravity of what was in his hand at the time, he said.
“That generation preserved the American way of life, preserved our freedoms and our liberties. You can’t recognize them enough for their service,” Johnson said.
“I say this. There weren’t many cowards,” Storey said.