World War II was a period when citizens of this country overwhelmingly rallied in support of the war effort, often sending their offspring to fight the tyranny spreading overseas. In Jefferson City, the war exacted a toll in the loss of the lives of many local residents such as Charles Ermin Kieselbach, who earned the uncoveted distinction of becoming the first Cole County casualty of war when he was killed at Pearl Harbor.
Born in Jefferson City on January 14, 1916, Kieselbach was the namesake of this father, a local bricklayer. When graduating from Jefferson City Senior High School in May 1934, he discovered that good jobs were elusive in the height of the Great Depression.
Later that summer, after spending several weeks searching for gainful employment, he signed up for work relief with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a federal program providing single men between ages 18 and 25 with jobs improving public lands, forests and parks.
“He worked in the CCC program from July 1934 to August 1935,” remarked his nephew, Wayne Kieselbach. “Still with no work to be had, he made the decision to enlist in the U.S. Navy in September 1935,” he added.
Beginning his four-year enlistment period, Kieselbach traveled to Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois, where he spent the next three months becoming a sailor. His training soon resulted in his rate of a Carpenter’s Mate and assignment to the battleship USS Arizona in January 1936.
The website of the Naval History and Heritage Command explained, “USS Arizona, a 31,400-ton Pennsylvania class battleship built at the New York Navy Yard, Brooklyn, New York, was commissioned in October 1916.”
The site further noted, “In 1929-31, Arizona was modernized at the Norfolk Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia, emerging with a radically altered appearance and major improvements to her armament and protection.”
Throughout the late 1930s, Kieselbach remained with the USS Arizona while it continued operations with the battle fleet. A milestone year arrived in 1939 when the sailor reenlisted, earned the rate of carpenter’s mate first class, and married his sweetheart from Jefferson City, the former June Summers.
As a carpenter’s mate, the young sailor’s duties found him working with issues related to the ship’s ventilation, painting, repairing lifeboats and, in times of combat, assisting in fighting fires and sealing any holes in the hull of the vessel.
“The Arizona had teak decking and sometime in the late 1930's, the ship was re-decked,” explained Wayne Kieselbach. “Of course, as a carpenter’s mate first class, he would have been involved in this project.” He continued, “Apparently after the re-decking was completed, the carpenter's mates were allowed to use some of the old decking on personal projects done in their spare time. My uncle made a pair of teak lamps which he gave to my grandmother, and which my cousin now has.”
In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sought to demonstrate American strength to the Japanese by moving the Pacific fleet (including the USS Arizona) to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The president attempted to allay tensions with Japan through diplomatic means, which quickly unraveled and resulted in deadly consequences for Kieselbach and scores of his comrades.
On the morning of December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor became ground zero for a devastating attack by Japanese forces—the signature event that drew the U.S. into World War II. The attack resulted in more than 2,400 American casualties and the destruction of nearly 20 U.S. Navy vessels and more than 300 aircraft.
A bomb detonated in a powder magazine aboard the USS Arizona, sending the battleship to the bottom of the harbor and becoming the coffin for scores of sailors including a 25-year-old Kieselbach.
“The USS Arizona Memorial is built over the remains of the sunken battleship USS Arizona, the final resting place for many of the 1,177 crewmen killed on December 7, 1941, explained the website of the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites. “This loss of life represents over half of the Americans killed during the worst naval disaster in American history.”
Devastated by the loss of their son, Kieselbach’s parents quickly committed to supporting the war effort, including two other sons still in the service, by appealing to their fellow citizens to purchase war bonds. Throughout the years, Kieselbach’s family explained, communication was lost with the young sailor’s widow, June.
In 1959, Jefferson City participated in observance of “USS Arizona Memorial Day,” presenting a check to a representative of Gov. James T. Blair to help with the construction of “a suitable memorial over the sunken battleship at Pearl Harbor,” noted the Sunday News and Tribune on August 9, 1959. Contributions were given in honor of the ultimate sacrifice made by Kieselbach and his fellow sailors.
The USS Arizona Memorial opened on May 30, 1962.
Nancy Snakenberg, a niece of Kieselbach’s, never had the opportunity to meet her uncle. However, she maintains that his respectable legacy has been passed down through her family, providing her with an enduring appreciation for all the sacrifices that were made on behalf of future generations.
“The Kieselbach family were a hardworking, loving and patriotic family who taught respect and integrity,” said Snakenberg. “Their values are directly responsible for my quality of life and those my children have enjoyed.” She added, “I am thankful for their examples they set and that their memory is being honored, including that of our Uncle Charles Ermin Kieselbach.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.