On the morning of December 7th, 1941, USS Arizona (BB-39) became the site of horrific losses when an aerial fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy flew into Pearl Harbor and launched a devastating attack. Early in the attack, Arizona suffered direct bomb strikes, which of which caused the mighty battleship to explode and sink to the floor of the harbor. USS Arizona lost 1,177 crewmen, among them 37 sets of brothers. These 63 brothers weren’t the only family members to be lost aboard the battleship, however. There was also a father and son killed on USS Arizona.
A Father and Son Serving on One Battleship
Thomas Augusta Free and William Thomas Free were two generations of the same family from Navasota, Texas. The father, Thomas, had enlisted many years before his son, but the two still ended up joining Arizona’s crew within six months of one another. It was actually the son, William, who took his place aboard Arizona before his father joined him.
Stories of individual sailors like the Frees can sometimes get lost within the huge tragedy of the more than 1,100 deaths aboard Arizona alone, but to think that Myrtle Free lost both her husband and her son in an instant is a horrible thing to consider.
A Navy Family
Thomas Free, born February 2, 1891, enlisted with the US Navy on December 22, 1917, toward the end of the First World War. Born in Union Springs, AL, Thomas enlisted at the recruiting station in San Diego, California. During the course of his service, he and his wife, Myrtle, welcomed a son, William, on January 19, 1923.
By the time he joined the crew of USS Arizona on October 10, 1941, Thomas had attained the rank of Machinist’s Mate First Class, responsible for maintaining the ship’s engines and knowing her drainage system inside and out.
December 7, 1941
Exactly where William Free was when the attack unfolded is unknown, but as a Machinist’s Mate, he was likely in the belly of the battleship tending to the drainage system as the ship took on water.
His son was likely topside at the moment of the explosion that sank the mighty ship. William Free had enlisted almost exactly a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, serving first at the Naval Training Center in San Diego. Four months into his service, William joined the crew of USS Arizona.
Exactly how the father and his son died is unknown. What is known is that remains of neither Thomas nor William were recovered in the wake of the attack. It’s believed that their bodies are still entombed on Arizona along with more than 900 of their fellow sailors and Marines.
For their service in the Navy, and their sacrifice at Pearl Harbor, Thomas and William Free were each awarded a Purple Heart and an American Defense Service Medal with Fleet Clasp. When the war ended, they also received the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with Star and World War II Victory Medal.