The sinking of the USS Oklahoma occurred over 75 years ago and the story has been passed down across multiple generations, but it still has a profound effect on those linked to the over 400 sailors who perished as she sank to the bottom of Pearl Harbor.

On December 7th, 1941, the Oklahoma came under fire from Japanese bombers and fighters. Before long, the mighty battleship had taken multiple fatal blows to her deck and hull. As torpedoes and bombs riddled the Oklahoma, her crew scrambled to save themselves and their fellow crewmen. Caught in the mayhem was John Charles England, an Ensign in the US Navy. Twenty-year-old England was at an age that today many consider very young, but he was forced to find a way to survive as the battleship on which he served erupted in flames and smoke.

Rather than focus on saving himself, however, the young officer refused to leave without helping others trapped in the depths of the battleship.

Last Day of Service for John England

USS Oklahoma foreground capsized

USS Oklahoma Capsized in front of USS Maryland.

On September 6th, 1940, 19-year-old England enlisted with the United States Naval Reserves, with the rank of Apprentice Seaman. Almost a year after he enlisted for service, the young seaman was assigned to the USS Oklahoma, the last vessel he would ever serve.

In the months leading up to Japan’s surprise attack, England married and had a child, Victoria Louise. In the early days of December, his wife and daughter were scheduled to arrive in Oahu.

When the morning of December 7th dawned, England volunteered to work in the Oklahoma’s radio room to accumulate more time off for when his family finally arrived. Before he could enjoy the thought of spending extra days with those he loved, the USS Arizona had been hit, struck by the Japanese bombers.

The Rest is History

John England actually survived the attack on the Oklahoma but refused to leave his fellow crewmen behind. He made several trips back inside the dying ship to save those he could. After several runs back inside, he never reemerged. Like the other 400-plus sailors who perished in the attack, England’s remains weren’t able to be identified.

For his heroics, England was honored with two navy vessels being named after him.

It seemed that England’s story ended after the second ship was christened in 1962, but in 2016, the United States POW/MIA Accounting Command launched a campaign to use DNA testing to identify the remains of the Oklahoma crew. In August of 2016, the remains of Ensign John England were found within the grave of unknown bodies at the National Cemetery of the Pacific.

John England

Grave marker for Ensign John England

Decades after the smoke from the attack on Pearl Harbor cleared, the remains of Ensign John Charles England was returned to Colorado Springs, where he was given a proper burial next to his parents.

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