In a day when we receive instant messages via phone from around the world, it’s hard to imagine a time when letters from loved ones might take months to arrive.
When the late Bernice Mantz received a letter Oct. 9, 1941, from her brother, Kenneth Earl Cockrum, he was working as a machinist on the lowest deck of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor.
Cockrum wrote he was looking forward to the possibility of finishing his tour of service in the Navy and coming home to Seymour to be a civilian once again.
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“Seems like everything I plan goes haywire here of late, like getting out of the Navy and coming home,” the Brownstown native wrote. “Of course, we don’t know for sure, but the best dope we can get on it, we won’t be back on shore until around the first of January 1942.”
That was the last letter his family would receive from him.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Cockrum, along with 1,176 of the 1,512 sailors and Marines on board the Pennsylvania-class battleship at the time of the Japanese surprise attack, lost their lives.
After being struck by three bombs and nearly hit by three others, the final blow came at 8:06 a.m. that day, when a bomb penetrated the armored deck of the Arizona and hit near ammunition magazines in the forward section of the ship, causing a massive explosion.
At 25, Cockrum would become Jackson County’s first casualty of World War II. There would be 113 more before the war ended in late summer of 1945.
Because communication was limited at best after the attack, many families didn’t receive word about loved ones until much later.
Bernice, who died Jan. 9, 2001, wrote Kenneth in January 1942, just after celebrating Christmas with family, but that letter was returned unopened.
She wrote: “Dear Kenneth, We have waited this long and have received no word from you. Mother got a telegram from Washington, stating that you are missing. If you are OK and can in anyway, please send us just a brief message. Mother is pretty worried. We’ve heard of several other boys that are OK and would certainly like to hear something about you.”
The letter was returned unopened. Another letter, sent earlier in November, also was returned unopened in January.
In March 1942, the family received an official Certificate of Casualty, a formal document with filled-in blanks, stating Cockrum was “missing in action, presumed dead;” “Cause of Casualty – Enemy Action.”
No body was sent home because none was recovered. The family held a memorial service later that spring in Seymour.
Bernice’s daughter, Roberta Bane of Vallonia, said she doesn’t really remember her mother talking about that time and what happened.
“I didn’t know much about it until I found the box of letters and newspaper clippings in mother’s things after she passed away,” Bane said.
Bane has preserved the letters, pictures and articles in a photo album. She also has a large photo of the USS Arizona memorial with a close-up of the name of her uncle where it appears on the ship.
“It’s a part of our family history, one that I want to keep so my kids and grandkids can see it and know how he served his country,” she said.
Cockrum was born May 16, 1916, and was the son of Charles and Anna B. Cockrum of Brownstown.
The family moved to Seymour when he was little, and he graduated from Seymour High School.
In July 1942, members of American Legion Post 89 voted to name the new air training base at Seymour The Kenneth E. Cockrum Field. They sent copies of that resolution to Ninth District Congressmen Earl Wilson and Indiana Sens. Raymond E. Willis and Frederick VanNuys.
The field later was named for Richard S. Freeman of Winamac, who died in a bomber crash early in the war in Nevada.
At least three other Seymour residents were serving overseas at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but their posts or station were not released by The Seymour Tribune to comply with military regulations imposed after Dec. 7, 1941.
They were sailors Marion and Marvin Carr, the sons of Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Carr of South Broadway Street, and U.S. Army Pvt. W.H. Alexander.
Sailor Roy Lester, son of Amelia Lester of West Eighth Street in Seymour, also reported in a note sent to his mother Dec. 9, 1941, that he and his wife, Eva, “are both safe and well. Best love from us both.”
Roy Lester’s residence at the time was not listed, but when his mother died in 1950, he was living in Long Beach, California.