Harry H. Gaver, Jr.


Harry Hamilton Gaver, Jr.
Marine Detachment
USS Oklahoma
637 North Wilcox Avenue
Los Angeles, CA
Father, Mr. H. H. Gaver
October 27, 1917
at Annapolis, MD
March 27, 1937 (enlisted)
July 23, 1940 (commissioned)
December 7, 1941
Hawaiian Islands
Pearl Harbor
Killed In Action
Second Lieutenant Harry H. Gaver, Jr., served with the Marine detachment aboard the USS Oklahoma. He was last seen aboard the battleship during the attack on Pearl Harbor, attempting to close a hatch before the Oklahoma capsized.

Gaver was declared dead following the attack, and his unidentified remains were buried as an unknown for more than seventy years. He was officially accounted for on 26 January 2017.

Purple Heart
Second Lieutenant
DPAA Announcement
Arlington National Cemetery (pending)
USS Oklahoma Memorial
Honolulu Memorial
Harry Gaver at Black-Foxe, 1935.

Harry Hamilton Gaver, Junior’s career was seemingly predetermined from the day he was born in Annapolis.

He entered the world on 27 October 1917, the only child of Helen and Harry “H. H.” Gaver, Senior, a mathematics instructor at the Naval Academy. In the mid-1920s, “H. H.” was offered the headmaster’s position at Urban Military Academy, a boarding and day school for boys in Hollywood, California. A few years later, in the fall of 1928, the Academy’s buildings were bought for the Black-Foxe Military Institute. The new school needed a headmaster, and “Major” Gaver – the title was honorary – was the perfect

An advertisement for Black-Foxe in the Honolulu Advertiser, 1934.

man for the job. “It was Harry Gaver that was the intellectual force behind the founding,” noted the school’s history, “and the rise to prominence of Black-Foxe as a first-rate college preparatory school.”[1] Once the school was established, young Harry was pulled from Severn School and enrolled at Black-Foxe.[2] He spent his high school years rubbing shoulders with military professionals and Hollywood stars who sent their sons to the Institute.[3]

Harry graduated from Black-Foxe with the class of 1935, and entered the University of Virginia (his father’s alma mater) that same year. He excelled in athletics; by his senior year, Harry had captained the school’s tennis and lacrosse teams, and was head cheerleader for the UVA Cavaliers. He was socially active as well – a Kappa Sigma Zeta brother, member of UVA’s “Eli Banana,” the German Club, and the elite, secretive “Thirteen Society.”  When he received his Bachelor of Science in 1939, Gaver was a well-educated and well-connected young man – and already making progress on his military career.

Harry Gaver joined the Marine Corps Reserve on 26 April 1937, during his sophomore year of college. He spent that summer training with the Eastern Platoon Leaders Class in Quantico, and by the time he graduated from UVA, Gaver was well-versed in the duties of a Marine officer. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant on 28 July 1939, spent two weeks “under instruction” with Company C, 5th Marines, and was placed on temporary inactive duty status.

Second Lieutenant Gaver reported back to Quantico on 27 September for assignment to a reserve officer’s course. By now, such schooling was old hat to Gaver, and he handily completed the course on November 10, 1939 – which happened to be the 164th Marine Corps Birthday. After a day of traditional birthday celebrations (and, one might imagine, an equally enthusiastic evening), Gaver and a handful of his classmates were on their way to California to join the Fleet Marine Force.

Gaver’s assignment was Company G, 6th Marines, then stationed in San Diego. Following another period “under instruction,” which included accompanying a recruit platoon through boot camp, Gaver was placed on active duty status as a qualified infantry officer. Over the next several months, the young lieutenant served with companies of the 6th and 8th Marines; he even temporarily commanded E/2/8 on amphibious landing exercises off the California coast. This breaking-in period occupied the first half of 1940, and seems to have deepened Gaver’s conviction that the military life was his calling. Later that year, while attending The Basic School, Gaver resigned his reserve commission and became a Regular officer.

Instruction at The Basic School occupied Gaver’s time and attention until early 1941 – and with good effect, for he was at the top of his class – when orders sent him to the naval base at Norfolk, Virginia. There, he joined the USS Oklahoma and sailed for the Territory of Hawaii for duty at Pearl Harbor. From June to December, Gaver served as the junior officer of the Oklahoma’s Marine detachment.

Lieutenant Gaver was on duty on 7 December 1941. The Oklahoma’s crew, in preparation for a captain’s inspection that morning, had opened all of her hatches – ideal for formal inspections, but a condition that nullified her ability to stay watertight. Thus, when the Japanese surprise attack sent the ship scrambling for general quarters, dogging down the hatches suddenly became a top priority – and one that came too late. Struck by torpedoes amidships, the battleship quickly developed an alarming list; counterflooding was impossible and water poured through the open hatches. Sailors began streaming up from below decks, desperate to escape the torrent. Closing the hatches meant a chance to save the ship; it could also mean dooming men to die. Even in the heat of the moment, the choice was not easily made.

Harry Gaver would have to make such a choice in the last few minutes of his life. Ensign Paul Backus witnessed the scene:

…I went around the barbette of turret one and started aft. I passed Second Lieutenant Gaver. He was on his knees, attempting to close a hatch on the port side, alongside the barbette. This hatch was part of the trunk which led from the main deck to the magazines and was used for striking down ammunition. There were men trying to come up from below at the time Harry was trying to close the hatch. No one who survived the attack saw Harry again. He too was killed that morning.[4]

Second Lieutenant Harry Gaver was the first UVA graduate (and Black-Foxe alumnus) to lose his life in World War II. His death caused a shockwave through both communities. “The war came closest to the kids here when they heard Harry Gaver was dead,” said University of Virginia coach Frank Murray.

Harry had played lacrosse and had been a cheer leader here. He was on the Oklahoma in Pearl Harbor…. Never had a chance. All the kids here knew Harry. You know what the reaction was, the personal, selfish reaction that was in there with the sorrow and the anger and all that? They played the harder. They went out for sports more. And it was easy to see that they felt, we’ll get this in while we can, we’ll do it while there’s time and it’ll help us for what’s ahead.[5]

The Los Angeles Times, 5 May 1942.

None of the remains recovered from the Oklahoma could be identified as Harry Gaver; a telegram to his stating that he was missing was quickly followed by the news that he was presumed dead. They would endure the war in hopes of having a body to bury, but that hope was dashed with the declaration that Harry Gaver was permanently nonrecoverable – believed lost at sea.

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:

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. Second Lieutenant Harry Gaver’s remains were among them; he was officially accounted for on 27 January 2017.

[1] Pat O’Donnell, “Black-Foxe: A Brief History,” www.bfmi.org/history.html (Archived) Black-Foxe took its name from its founders, Majors Harry Black (Commandant of Cadets) and Earle Foxe (president). Both were distinguished veterans of the Great War; Major Black was also former commandant of Urban Military Academy.

[2] Major Gaver evidently went alone to California, at least at first. Helen and Harry Junior were still living in Annapolis in the 1930 census; Harry appears in the yearbook for the Severn School (Severna Park, MD) as a freshman in 1931.

[3] Black-Foxe was noted for attracting film-industry parents – due as much to its location as to its reputation. The president, Major Foxe, was also an accomplished film actor.

[4] Paul H. Backus, “Why Them and Not Me?” in Paul Stillwell, Air Raid: Pearl Harbor! (Annapolis: USNI, 1981).

[5] Ira Wolfert, “No Security, No Coach For Yale,” The Argus-Leader (Sioux Falls, SD) 2 April 1942.

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