When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the sinking of the USS Arizona claimed the lives of 1,177 sailors and Marines. It included the only father and son pair who perished, Thomas Augusta Free and his son, William Thomas Free had a Navasota connection.
A year or so back, a Grains from the Sandbar column in the Navasota Examiner, related that when the attack occurred, a daughter of Thomas Free and a brother to William Free, was enrolled at Navasota High School. She was Myrtle Marie Free living with an aunt in Navasota because of a broken home life.
Today, a retired journalist, Bobbie Jo Buel Carter, has just completed researching and writing profiles of every man who was killed that infamous day on the USS Arizona. It is called the “USS Arizona Mall Memorial” and can be accessed on Facebook by typing in that title in the search window. Anyone who knew or was related to any casualty that day can access what Carter’s research found on each sailor or Marine.
A news article in the Hawaii News Now relates Carter’s six-year search for each individual casualty. It took her from her home in Tucson, Arizona across the country to New York City as well as the North Dakota Historical Society. Her search led her to relatives who shared photographs and letters that had been written by the victims. She found many similarities in that many of the younger personnel were from broken homes and raised by single parents or relatives.
The victims included many African Americans and sailors from Guam and the Philippines who were the ship’s cooks and custodians. With the Navy segregated at the time, she could find only “bits of background” of these victims.
Carter’s listing for Thomas Free and his son William Free, states that they “were together only briefly in life. The last time was in October 1941, when Thomas, then 50, joined William, 17, on the crew of the USS Arizona. Carter found dozens of relatives on the ship such as brothers, cousins and uncles, but the Frees were the only father and son.”
Carter writes of the Frees: “Thomas was born Feb. 2, 1891, in Alabama. He moved to Texas and farmed before joining the Navy in 1917. He was active in World War I service, but returned to Texas, at least briefly, in 1919. A short news article that December of 1919 said he (Thomas) was back in Bryan, Texas after helping with the cotton harvest in west Texas. Later that month he married Myrtle Bice. He was 28 and she was 15. William Thomas was born Jan. 9, 1924, in Norfolk. His sister, Marie, was born in 1925 in California. Their parents soon divorced, and the children went to live with their father’s sister, Lillie Mae, and her husband, Frank Meads, in Brazos County, Texas. They stayed with the Meads throughout childhood.
“Right after his 17th birthday, William followed his father into the Navy. He went aboard the Arizona in April 1941 and by the time of his death seven months later was a seaman second class. Thomas, his father, was a machinist’s mate first class.” Carter has a special thanks to a Karen Baker, who is related to the Frees. She provided most of the Frees’ information including a photo of Thomas that is included in the Mall Memorial on Facebook, as well as a Navy photo of his son, William.
Carter asks that any additions or corrections to any of the 1,117 individuals listed to please contact her at: email@example.com. She considers her work still in progress as future information becomes available. Carter is retired from serving as editor of the Arizona Daily Star Newspaper in Tucson, Arizona.