Gerald and Robert Clayton bonded as tightly as two cousins can, growing up side-by-side on farms in Depression-era Nebraska.
The boys were the same age, handsome and outgoing. They palled around together at Central City High School, where they starred in football and basketball. They romanced local girls. They met pro wrestling stars, brought to the small town by their uncle, Max Clayton, an Omaha ring promoter.
Even after Robert’s father accepted an oil-industry job and moved his family to Long Beach, California, in 1937 — just before his senior year — Jerry and Bob stayed close with newsy letters back and forth. After they graduated the following year, both joined the Navy.
“Bob and Jerry were the best of friends,” said their grandniece, Sheri Spomer, who lives in Arizona.
The cousins, both 21, were excited when they both ended up in Hawaii in late 1941, their ships just a couple of hundred yards apart on Pearl Harbor’s Battleship Row.
Jerry, a storekeeper, served aboard the USS Oklahoma. Bob, a coxswain, was on the USS Arizona.
On the last day of November, Bob wrote a letter to his family in California, which arrived just over a week later. He said he didn’t know when he would get back to Long Beach.
“I wish Japan would either fight or keep still,” he wrote. “It’s on account of them that we’re out here.”
On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan fought. Their navy launched a sneak attack on U.S. forces in Hawaii.
At Pearl Harbor, they focused their fury on Battleship Row. Within 15 minutes, as many as eight torpedoes struck the Oklahoma. It rolled over, trapping about 400 of the 1,400-man crew below decks. And a Japanese bomb scored a direct hit on the Arizona’s magazine, blowing up the ship in a cataclysmic explosion that killed 1,177 men.
The Clayton cousins were both killed, though their families would not know this for months. Neither body was ever recovered.
More than 50 members of the Clayton family — most of the living descendants — will gather at 11 a.m. Friday at the Central City Cemetery to bury Gerald Clayton next to his parents and siblings. Hundreds of Central City-area residents are expected to come out for the military service, too. It is occurring during the town’s annual Lone Tree Days celebration.
The theme of the event this year: “Coming Home.”
Jerry’s body was identified as part of a five-year effort to identify the remains from the Oklahoma, most of which were never identified and were buried in Hawaii in graves marked “unknown.” The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency lab at Offutt Air Force Base was in charge of the effort.
The loss of the two Clayton boys ripped a hole in the in the family that was never quite mended, Spomer said, and in the Central City community as well.
“The entire community grieves with the relatives over the loss of these two fine lads,” said a local newspaper story about two weeks after the attack, reporting that the Claytons were missing.
“It was a small town. It touched a lot of people,” Spomer said. “Our generation can’t fathom the sacrifices that were made back then.”
Bob Clayton’s remains were entombed in the Arizona, which the Navy decided in 1942 was too badly damaged to be salvaged. The 1,102 men who were never recovered were considered to have been buried at sea, the battleship their grave marker.
His family’s suffering was compounded in 1944 when Bob’s brother, Sam, who was also serving in the Navy, died in a plane crash off the coast of France. His body has never been recovered, either.
Jerry Clayton’s family endured months of uncertainty over their fate. Later in the winter of 1941-42, the Navy Department reported that Jerry Clayton had actually survived the attack. Two teams of men, one on foot and one on horseback, ventured out during a snowstorm to the farm of his parents, Lee and Grace Clayton, to deliver what a contemporary news account described as “the joy-bringing telegram.”
In March 1942, the American Red Cross confirmed that he was safe.
Still, the families heard nothing more. It took at least six months before the Navy sent another telegram, this one declaring that Jerry Clayton must be dead.
“Owing to the time which has now elapsed without word from your son, Gerald Lee Clayton, or report of his having been taken aboard any other Naval vessel or activity, the possibility of his being alive has been entirely abandoned,” the telegram said.
The Oklahoma was salvaged over the following two years, and the oil-soaked bones that were recovered from the wreck buried in two Honolulu cemeteries. After the war, the military exhumed the remains and tried to identify them but gave up because they were hopelessly mixed. They were reburied in 46 gravesites at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, near Honolulu.
Jerry Clayton’s parents hung his photo in their front parlor, and tried after the war to learn more from the Navy.
“My great-grandfather had written to the Navy, pleading — please, give us any information,” Spomer said. None was forthcoming.
The news late last year that Jerry’s remains were identified and matched to a DNA sample provided by one of his cousins is finally bringing some closure to his family, Spomer said.
“This has really sparked a need for everyone to connect,” she said. “It’s kept his name alive.
“He is not forgotten.”