Waldean Black


Waldean Black
Marine Detachment,
USS Oklahoma
Southwest 3rd Street
Perryton, TX
Mother, Mrs. Mattie Jane Black
November 11, 1921
at Spearman, TX
May 21, 1941
at Oklahoma City, OK
December 7, 1941
Hawaiian Islands
Pearl Harbor
Killed In Action
Private Waldean Black was on duty aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma when she was sunk by Japanese aircraft at Pearl Harbor. He was not seen after the attack, and was declared dead as of 7 December 1941.

Black’s remains were recovered from the Oklahoma during salvage operations and buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific as unknown. He was identified and accounted for on 13 December 2018.

Purple Heart
Accounted For

December 13, 2018
USS Oklahoma Memorial
National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific

Waldean Black was born in Perryton, Texas on Armistice Day, 1921. Little information about his life before the war is readily available; he grew up in Perryton with his parents, Tyson and Samantha “Mattie” Jane Black, and six siblings.

On 21 May 1941, Waldean Black joined the Marine Corps from a recruiting office in Oklahoma City. He was given immediate orders to board a train bound for California; two days later, a drill instructor of the Third Recruit Battalion at MCRD San Diego was making Waldean sweat. It seems that the young Texan took to the tough training, even qualifying as a sharpshooter at the depot rifle range on 18 July. One week later, Private Black reported for instruction at the post Sea School in preparation for duty with a ship of the fleet.

New orders arrived in the late summer of 1941, and on 5 September Private Black hauled his sea bags aboard the USS Kanawha at San Diego, joining a few dozen other young Marines in cramped quarters. The oiler was ultimately bound for Pearl Harbor, but Black would not travel that far just yet. On 10 September, he and Private James D. Harber disembarked at San Francisco and made their way to the Hunter’s Point drydock where their new home was waiting.

The USS Oklahoma (BB-37) in February, 1941.

The USS Oklahoma was laid up for repairs to a damaged propeller shaft. For just under a month, Black and the rest of the Marine detachment stood guard at the battleship’s gangways and probably chipped their fair share of paint. A number of new men joined the outfit, and there was occasional drama when men stayed ashore over leave. There were shipboard drills, weapons training, and inspections. Like most junior Marines, Private Black did quite a bit of mess duty. When 3 October – sailing day – rolled around, there must have been much excitement among the men leaving the continental United States for the first time. They were headed for Pearl Harbor.

The Oklahoma arrived at Pearl Harbor on 10 October 1941, and over the next seven weeks participated in a few brief training exercises in and around the Hawaiian Islands. Much more time was spent moored at the navy yard, conducting the many daily tasks required to keep a large warship operational. The Marines held drills on their five-inch gun mounts – there was fierce competition between gun crews in the fleet – manned fire control stations, or served as orderlies and guards. Private Black’s role within the detachment, unfortunately, is not known.

Liberty ashore was a popular diversion, especially with the Christmas holidays approaching. On 6 December 1941, nearly half of the ship’s company was allowed to go ashore, with admonitions to be back aboard and in good condition for the Sunday morning flag raising ceremony. Private Black might have spent this last Saturday shopping or carousing in Honolulu, or he might have pulled duty with the promise of having his name on the liberty list for Sunday.

On the morning of 7 December 1941, the Oklahoma’s Marines prepared for another routine day. Some, like Private Ted Hall, went down to the galley for an early breakfast. Others burrowed into their racks for a few more moments of sleep. Nearly forty of them were wide awake, scrubbed and polished, gathering on deck for permission to hit the town.

At 0755, strange planes appeared in the sky overhead. Minutes later, the world exploded.

Private Black might have been up on deck for his final moments of life, but more likely he was somewhere inside the ship when the first torpedoes struck. Men rushed for battle stations, cursing and confused, running into each other in the chaos as the ship lurched and began to list. Soon the port side batteries were under water, and the order was passed to abandon ship.

Waldean Black never made it off the Oklahoma. Tyson and Mattie Jean received a telegram on Christmas Day stating that their son was missing; this was soon followed by another message confirming his death in action.

Following a painstaking engineering operation, the Oklahoma was righted and refloated in early 1944. While salvage crews cleaned and removed anything of possible military value, other teams searched through years of accumulated muck for human remains. Navy diver Edward C. Raymer was tasked with taking a civilian reporter aboard the ship:

Notice of Waldean Black’s death, published in an unknown newspaper.

We reached the third deck, and Burns asked me about dead bodies: how many had been found, what was done with them, how they could be identified. I explained that the medics sorted through all the sludge and debris for bones. Then they placed approximately two hundred bones in a bag, which represented the number in a human body. The bag was sent to the army hospital, where a chaplain performed services for the remains.

According to the Oklahoma’s muster records, four hundred of the crew perished aboard her. I finished by saying I was glad it wasn’t my job to explain to the sailors’ families why their loved ones remained unidentified. The reasons could seem very offensive to them.

Slithering through the ankle-deep filth, Burns caught himself as his foot struck something on the deck. He cried out in revulsion when he found it was part of a human body. “My God, I’ve stumbled over a leg. It even has a shoe on what’s left of the foot.”

– Edward C. Raymer, Descent Into Darkness: Pearl Harbor, 1941, A Navy Diver’s Memoir

The remains recovered from the Oklahoma were buried in fifty-two mass graves in Halawa and Nuuanu Cemeteries on the island of Oahu. At the end of the war, the graves were exhumed with the intent of identifying as many of the dead as possible before reinterment in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. Dr. Mildred Trotter, one of the anthropologists in charge of the Central Identification Laboratory, was dismayed to note that “common graves consist[ed] of bones of a kind buried together (i.e. one casket was filled with skulls, another with femurs, another with hip bones and so on)” – a strange decision that “added greatly to the difficulty of the undertaking.” Although her technicians made “a very honest effort… to segregate all the remains from the Oklahoma,” Dr. Trotter admitted that it would take “a very long period (years)” and “different circumstances” to fully separate all the remains. Only 49 men could be identified by the end of 1949; the remainder were buried in 46 common graves in Honolulu.

In 2015, an official directive was passed to exhume the graves of the Oklahoma’s final crew. Modern science and DNA analysis provided the “different circumstances” Dr. Trotter’s note required, and more than 100 of the crew have so far been identified. Private Waldean Black’s remains were among them; he was officially accounted for on 13 December 2018.

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