Today is Memorial Day, and it is an even more somber holiday than usual: instead of attending backyard barbecues and opening swimming pools, many Americans continue to reel from the COVID-19 pandemic. The New York Times yesterday published a heart-stopping front page with the names of 1,000 people who have died from the disease in the past two months, and even as much of the country begins to reopen there are growing hotspots in various sections of the nation and the world. Although Memorial Day is about the countless Americans who have given their lives in the service of their country, our thoughts are not far from those who have recently fallen victim to this awful illness.
In any case, today I want to take the opportunity to highlight two men I have only recently started researching and writing about, not on here but in my actual Grandpa’s Letters manuscript draft: S2c Mathew Agola and F3c Clarence Wise. Both men were sailors aboard Elmer Luckett’s first ship, the Chew. Both men were from Saint Louis, Missouri. Both men knew my grandpa, as well as most of the other men aboard the ship. And both men died on the morning of December 7, 1941 during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Although the Chew was not hit that morning, both Agola and Wise had spent the previous night off ship. When the attack started, the men were effectively stranded ashore with no way of getting back to the destroyer. But instead of seeking safety elsewhere, they rushed towards the USS Pennsylvania, which was in dry dock and a sitting duck to Japanese dive bombers. They joined the small crew there as it worked furiously to put out several large fires. Tragically, however, Agola and Wise died when a bomb hit her deck.
Like thousands of others that day, Wise and Agola didn’t not wake up that morning thinking they were at war. In fact, it had only been just over a year since Clarence Alvin Wise passed the news that he was activated along to his parents, Robert and Virginia. Wise enlisted earlier than most of his shipmates: he swore his oath on March 16, 1939, the day after Germany invaded Czechoslovakia. Yet despite the disastrous failure of France and Great Britain’s appeasement policy toward Adolf Hitler that Spring, war seemed a long way off for America, if not necessarily Europe. Back at home, Robert worked at Hobusch Cleaners on Big Bend Boulevard in Maplewood, while Virginia was a machine operator in a tobacco factory. The Wise family had recently moved out of their home on Blaine Avenue near Tower Grove Park and into Maplewood, a suburb just west of the Saint Louis City limits. Their new residence, three-bedroom wooden frame house on a quiet suburban street, afforded Robert, Virginia, Clarence, and Robert’s father Frederick some additional space. Although Wise did not continue his schooling past the ninth grade, on his enlistment application he stated that he was a mechanic. Before leaving for active duty, Clarence married his sweetheart, Margaret Sutton. Within a week he, Mathew, Elmer, and hundreds of other activated Saint Louisans were on a train heading west.
Unlike Clarence, who already had a job and a wife before getting called up, Mathew Agola was only 18. In fact, he was barely 17 when he signed up on July 20, 1940. His father, automotive machinist Peter Agola, authorized his son’s enlistment papers – a fact that evidently caused a rift between him and his wife, Rose. Like many members of his generation, Mathew represented the first generation of his family to be born in the United States. Both of his parents came from Italy. Mathew, however, was born in Saint Louis. Before his enlistment he attended school at St. Paul’s in Pine Lawn, which is near what is now Lambert International Airport west of the city.
After the Navy called Mathew up for active duty, the Agolas fretted over their son’s sudden departure and his – and the world’s – uncertain future. By August, his parents were at their wits end. Peter and Rose did not believe that Mathew would be away for so long. Frustrated, Peter wrote to Admiral Chester Nimitz – then the Chief of the Navy’s Bureau of Navigation – in August 1941 and implored him to send Mathew home on leave. “At that time [when I authorized his enlistment papers] I didn’t realize that he would be called for so long a period,” he wrote in his letter to the Admiral. “Since my son has been gone (since last December) my wife has been a nervous wreck and is always fussing with me, saying it is my fault that he is away from home. If this keeps on I believe I will be a nervous wreck myself.” His favor was for Mathew to be sent home “for awhile. I believe this will make my wife feel happier and better, and it would take me out of the doghouse. I will gladly pay his fare home from San Diego.” Despite Peter’s pleas, however, Nimitz sent a form letter back, suggesting that Mathew submit an official request for leave.
On December 17th, less than four months after Peter wrote his letter, and after ten interminably long days had passed since the Pearl Harbor attack, Mathew’s fate was finally known:
Mathew Agola would not make the trip back to Saint Louis until 1947, when his remains were transported to Jefferson Barracks Memorial Cemetery for burial. Meanwhile, Clarence Wise’s body was never found. Weeks later, and after a mountain of paperwork, his disappearance was officially ruled a death.
As I stated above, I’ve only recently begun researching these two men, and there is a great deal to say about both of them: their stories, their sacrifices, and the loved ones they left behind. But for now, here are two names to think about as we remember and honor the fallen on this Memorial Day.
Stay healthy, friends, and thanks as always for reading.