Ed Husar: Local Pearl Harbor veteran dies -- 70 years after initial report of his death

Posted: Aug. 5, 2011 6:38 am Updated: Nov. 28, 2014 2:17 pm

The July 28 death of 87-year-old Jesse James Crabtree Jr. of LaGrange, Mo., formerly of Quincy, was duly reported last week in the obituary pages of The Quincy Herald-Whig.

But it wasn't the first time this newspaper reported Crabtree's death.

On Dec. 14, 1941, a headline in The Herald-Whig declared: "Jesse Crabtree Killed in Action in Pacific Clash."

The accompanying news story said Crabtree, then 17, "was the first Quincyan to be killed in the Pacific war zone" as a result of Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941 -- an event that killed 2,300 Americans, wounded nearly 2,000 others and catapulted the U.S. into World War II.

The story noted that Crabtree's parents had received a telegram "notifying them of the youth's death."

There was only one problem. The telegram was in error.

In a December 1991 interview with The Herald-Whig coinciding with the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Crabtree talked about the telegram incident, noting how it sent shock and sadness through his family back in Quincy.

Crabtree recalled being a little shocked himself. Three days after the Pearl Harbor attack, he was working on a burial detail when he heard his name listed among the dead.

Crabtree immediately sent a postcard home to let his family know he was actually still alive. However, it took two months for that postcard to arrive. All during that time his family thought he was dead and even held memorial services for him.

Back in those pre-Internet and pre-cell phone days, Crabtree had no way to reach his family quickly.

"You couldn't pick up the telephone after the attack," Crabtree said, explaining how security concerns made it impossible for servicemen to make personal phone calls. In addition, postal deliveries from the war zone were delayed because mail was being heavily censored.

Crabtree said he didn't know how his name got on the roster of those killed. But it may have resulted from all the chaos and confusion that ensued after the Japanese sank his ship, the USS Nevada -- one of 18 U.S. ships that were sunk or heavily damaged.

Crabtree acknowledged he almost died in the attack because he was trapped for a time inside the Nevada as it was going down. "I could almost see the angels -- or the devil," he said.

However, Crabtree managed to escape from the ship. He later received a commendation for courage, skill and devotion to duty while under attack.

In conjunction with the 1991 interview, Crabtree agreed to have his picture taken while holding the telegram that was sent to his parents. Dated Dec. 11, 1941, the telegram said, in part:

"The Navy Department deeply regrets to inform you that your son Jesse James Crabtree, Jr., fireman third class USN was lost in action in the performance of his duty and in the service of his country. The department extends to you its sincerest sympathy in your great loss. To prevent possible aid to our enemies please do not divulge the name of his ship or station. If remains are recovered they will be interred temporarily in the locality where death occurred and you will be notified accordingly."

As it turned out, of course, Crabtree was anything but deceased. In fact, after surviving the Pearl Harbor attack, he spent another seven years in the Navy before switching to the Army for 23 more years of military service. He served one tour of duty in Korea and three tours in Vietnam and retired as a colonel.

Crabtree went on to graduate from Gem City Business College and later became an instructor at the college. He also owned a jewelry store and a gas station. In addition, Crabtree and his wife, Betty, had 10 children.

That's a lot of post-war accomplishments for the city's first World War II fatality.




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