BOYS TOWN — Navy Mess Attendant 2nd Class Donald Monroe basked for a moment in Hollywood’s reflected glow one summer night in 1941, a happy moment in a short life punctuated with pain.
That was the night that sailors aboard Monroe’s ship, the battleship USS Arizona, viewed the popular Spencer Tracy-Mickey Rooney film “Boys Town” while at anchor in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The screening of the fictionalized story of the Omaha orphanage turned the 21-year-old African American sailor, a 1936 Boys Town graduate, into a mini-celebrity. He was the only alumnus on the Arizona’s 1,500-man crew.
“(The film) was wonderful!” Monroe wrote in a July 1941 letter to the Rev. Edward Flanagan, Boys Town’s founding director. “Everyone enjoyed it. All the boys on my ship ask me was Boys Town just like in the picture? I told them it was.”
Less than six months later, on Dec. 7, 1941, Monroe and 1,176 of his shipmates perished when a massive explosion rocked the Arizona minutes into a surprise attack by Japanese naval forces (335 Arizona sailors survived). They were among the first U.S. service members killed in World War II.
Monroe was one of two Boys Town alums who died at Pearl Harbor. The other, Seaman 2nd Class George Thompson, was killed aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma, which capsized at its mooring after being struck by several Japanese torpedoes. Thompson was one of 429 sailors aboard that ship who perished.
The news of the attack, 80 years ago today, shocked the nation, but it hit Boys Town especially hard.
The tight-knit community 10 miles west of Omaha had a population of 254, according to 1940 census figures. A “partial list,” published in the bimonthly newspaper the Boys Town Times just after Pearl Harbor, identified 35 former residents who were serving at the time.
Flanagan condemned the attack in his front-page “Father Flanagan Says” column. He compared it to a gunman who “would hold up innocent and unsuspecting citizens with the purpose of robbing them, and killing them needlessly in cold blood.”
Hugh Reilly, co-author of “Letters from the Front,” a 1995 book about Boys Town graduates’ role in 20th century wars, said that the morning after the Pearl Harbor attack, former student mayor Jimmy Ross — who was from Honolulu — led a group of 25 boys to Flanagan’s office seeking permission to join the military.
“The entire senior class, as well as a bunch of 15- and 16-year-olds, wanted to enlist,” said Reilly, a retired University of Nebraska at Omaha professor. “Their immediate, visceral response was that we’ve got to do this because of who we are and where we are.”
Flanagan described the event in a 1944 column called “Boys Town Goes To War.” At first, he offered to join up with them, hoping to illustrate the absurdity of immediately abandoning their current lives to join the armed forces.
When several persisted, he spoke more sternly.
“I appeared at the noon meal and told the boys emphatically that our Army and Navy needed men, not babes; that they should forget about joining now, and that they would serve their country better by remaining in school to prepare themselves for the time when they would be called into the service,” Flanagan wrote.
Hundreds of Boys Town boys did go on to serve — so many that Flanagan was named as “America’s No. 1 War Dad” by the War Dads of America, a group that he served as chaplain.
“He looked at them all as his sons,” said Tom Lynch, Boys Town’s community programs director and historian.
So many of the boys came from fractured homes that 800 World War II service members listed Flanagan as their next of kin, Lynch said. At least 40 Boys Town alums died in the war.
Nothing could have prepared the community for the shock of Pearl Harbor. Walter Clark, a Boys Town graduate who survived the attack aboard the battleship USS West Virginia, described the morning of Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, in a letter to Flanagan (quoted in “Letters from the Front”) as “peaceful,” with “the sun just coming over the mountains.”
Japanese aircraft started dropping bombs at 7:50 a.m., he said, when many of the sailors were still sleeping. Others were at work or getting ready for church.
“General Quarters was sounded, but by that time, we had been hit several times by heavy bombs,” Clark wrote. “The ship caught fire and started blowing up. ... The gun I was on didn’t get many rounds out. But instead I helped fight fires and care for the wounded.”
Most of the West Virginia’s 1,400 crew members managed to escape before the ship sank and was engulfed in oil-fueled flames. But 106 died. For days, Marines guarding the hulk were tortured by the sound of sailors trapped below decks, pounding for help but beyond the reach of rescuers.
“I had several close friends killed, and I sure hated that,” Clark added. “But most everybody lost friends here.”
Clark probably never knew Donald Monroe, whose ship was anchored just aft of the West Virginia.
In summer 1935, a St. Louis social worker, Julia Hynes, asked Flanagan if he would take in Donald and his brother, Ralph, a year younger. She described them as “two wonderfully good boys.” He agreed, and they arrived at Boys Town on Sept. 16.
During the next school year, both boys played in the school’s band. Flanagan sent a positive report on the brothers to Hynes, according to “Letters from the Front.”
“The boys have behaved themselves rather well for the time they have been with us, especially Donald,” Flanagan wrote. “He has been a very exemplary figure and a source of edification to the other boys here at the home.”
The Monroe brothers returned to St. Louis to live with an aunt in July 1936. Three years later, Donald joined the Navy and became a mess attendant, one of the few jobs available to African Americans in the segregated U.S. military. He joined the crew of the Arizona on Jan. 2, 1940.
Little is known about Donald Monroe’s last moments on the Arizona because so few people who were below decks survived to tell the story. Likely he was at work, serving breakfast in the officers’ mess, when the bombs started to fall.
Within minutes, the Arizona was struck by several Japanese torpedoes. One monstrous bomb weighing 1,757 pounds penetrated the deck near the No. 2 gun turret, and exploded in the forward magazine below decks. A cataclysmic explosion rained debris and human carnage over the harbor.
No one who heard the blast would ever forget it. The resulting fires burned for days. Only 335 men — barely one-fourth of the crew — escaped alive, many of them badly wounded.
Monroe was never seen again. But soon after the catastrophe, a surviving USS Arizona officer, Ensign John Paul Howatt, penned a letter to Flanagan that was quoted in the Boys Town Times on March 27, 1942.
Howatt said Monroe had been missing since Dec. 7, and was expected to be declared dead along with the rest of the Arizona’s missing sailors. He said he had known Monroe well, and called him “a fine example of what a young American should be.”
An American Legion post in North Webster, a predominately African American neighborhood in Monroe’s hometown, was named for him, according to USSArizona.org.
George Thompson spent only four months at Boys Town in 1934, when he was 14, but it left an impression on him that would never leave.
As a boy, he lived in Omaha with his divorced mother, Esther Thompson, and attended what is now Monroe Middle School. She brought him to Boys Town in the depths of the Great Depression, telling Father Flanagan that she had no money to feed him or heat their house, according to “Letters from the Front.” Thompson returned home after his mother found work.
“I will never forget Boys Town or the friends I made there,” he later wrote to Flanagan.
Thompson graduated from high school in Washington state, where his father lived. He enlisted in the Navy in January 1941 and was assigned to the USS Oklahoma.
The Navy apparently suited him, according to a letter he wrote to his uncle’s family in October.
“I like it fine aboard ship,” Thompson wrote. “Sure is a good bunch of fellows and they feed me swell.”
On Dec. 7, the Oklahoma was moored just ahead of the West Virginia. It, too, was marked for quick destruction. By 7:53 a.m. — three minutes into the attack on Battleship Row — the ship had absorbed hits from three torpedoes on its exposed port side. Water poured in below decks as the stunned crew scrambled to close watertight bulkheads and save the ship.
Another torpedo struck at 7:58, and at least three more hit just after 8. By 8:09, the Oklahoma had slumped into the bay and rolled completely over to port, until its top masts hit the silty bottom. More than 400 of its crew were trapped below decks — including Thompson.
Thirty-two sailors were rescued thanks to frantic efforts on Dec. 7-8, but the rest died and remained entombed until the ship was refloated in mid-1943.
The recovered remains were buried as unknowns in Honolulu, then disinterred in 1947 in a fruitless two-year attempt to identify them. They were reburied at Hawaii’s National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, then exhumed again in 2015 for a second attempt at identification at the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s laboratory at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue.
Since then, the Accounting Agency has identified 361 of 394 unidentified Oklahoma sailors — including Thompson, whose remains were identified in 2018. His relatives have not yet arranged for his burial, said Sgt. 1st Class Sean Everette, an agency spokesman.
Soon after his death, Thompson’s mother received one last gift from her son: a purse he had bought as a Christmas present. Within a year, she left Omaha for California, leaving sad memories behind.
Father Flanagan wrote her a letter of condolence.
“It is mothers like you, dear Mrs. Thompson, who are the real patriots of our country,” the priest wrote. “We all admire that patriotism and that courage — and we are all buoyed up with still greater enthusiasm to carry on in order that our Country may continue to enjoy the freedoms which the blood of our forefathers made possible for us.”
That enthusiasm was evident at Boys Town, Lynch said. And the village’s elevated profile thanks to the movie — which was the highest-grossing film in 1938 and earned Tracy, who portrayed Flanagan, an Oscar for best actor — gave Flanagan a bigger platform through which to boost the war effort.
“The boys had scrap-metal drives. They had a victory garden. Father Flanagan went out on war bond drives,” Lynch said. “Boys Town was very active.”
In his Christmas radio address to the nation in 1942, a year into the war, Flanagan praised the nation’s speedy mobilization after Pearl Harbor, boosting a prewar military of 130,000 soldiers into a wartime juggernaut of 7.5 million.
“Our young men of military age have overtaxed the recruiting stations of the nation, anxious to enter the fight to defend the honor of the nation and their flag,” he said, adding, “Pearl Harbor has been avenged many times over.”
And he read from the letter he had received the previous spring from Howatt, in which the white officer praised the soft-spoken Black sailor from St. Louis, as well as the school that shaped him.
“Donald Monroe was proud of Boys Town; I know that Boys Town is proud of him,” Howatt wrote. “If he is an example of the average boy from Boys Town, then I can easily see why our whole country is proud of Boys Town.”