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William Garnett Christian
Courtesy Gaye Thomas, Find A Grave

West Virginia Veterans Memorial

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William Garnett Christian
1916-1941

"It is always darkest just before the day dawneth."

Thomas Fuller

Baker Second Class William Garnett Christian was born in Gary, McDowell County, West Virginia, on October 30, 1916, to George Washington Christian and Bessie Crutchfield Christian Aycock. As was customary of many men of his time, Christian went by his middle name. William Garnett Christian had an older brother, Stanley. After living in West Virginia for less than four years, he moved to Claiborne, Tennessee, where the 1920 U.S. Federal Census enumerates Garnett and Stanley in the household of James Pridemore, presumably an uncle. The family eventually settled 80 odd miles to the southwest at Harriman, in Roane County, Tennessee, with his mother and stepfather, James Aycock. They would eventually have three more children, according to the 1930 census: Geneva, Bernice, and James.

Growing up in Tennessee during the Great Depression was not easy. At this time, Tennessee’s economy was not very industrialized, and many were farmers. President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs provided unemployment relief to millions of people, but farmers were not as much of a priority as wage earners during the New Deal era. William Garnett Christian grew up in an area that happened to be in close proximity to the Tennessee Valley, which was the epicenter of the Tennessee Valley Authority, an infrastructure project commissioned by FDR to put people to work in the region. This economic stimulus made the area in which he lived generally more prosperous than the very rural areas of the state. Tennesseans also began to have access to electricity at higher rates due to dams built by the TVA. This may have been part of the reason Christian was sent from McDowell county to Tennessee. William was reportedly described by his only living sister later in her life as someone who was always joking and who loved to play guitar.

Christian married his wife, Bertha Louise Howard, on June 13, 1936. They would go on to have one son, Wendell Garnett Christian (listed as Gary in the 1940 census). William enlisted in the Navy in 1936, and the couple moved from Tennessee to Long Beach, California. By 1936, tensions with Japan and the other aggressive regimes in Europe were boiling high, and the Roosevelt administration, while preferring neutrality to conflict, began to realize it might have to adopt a firmer stance to curb the imperial ambitions of the Japanese.

As of the 1940 census, Garnett was still living in Long Beach, but between then and December 7, 1941, he was stationed at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii. He was a petty officer second class, specifically a baker second class. Bakers in the Navy did exactly as their title prescribed—they baked and operated ovens on the ship, feeding the fighting men.

Christian departed from his wife and son on January 20, 1941. Tragically, this would be the last time he saw either of them. His final contact with any of his family would be a letter sent to his dear mother. Dated November 29, 1941, the letter complained that “...the ship was supposed to have gone back to the states three times but something always happened to keep us from going.” Christian’s ship, the USS West Virginia, would not return to the states before the Japanese aerial attack on December 7th. Instead, it was destined for a long four years on Pacific warfare. Christian was lost only three months before his scheduled release from the Navy.
USS West Virginia

The USS West Virginia (BB-48) in San Francisco Bay, circa 1934. Official U.S. Navy photo no. 80-G-1027204, now in the collection of the National Archives and Records Administration

West Virginia

Sailors in a motor launch rescue a survivor from the water alongside the sunken West Virginia during or shortly after the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. National Archives and Records Administration photo no. 80-G-19930

Coincidentally docked adjacent to the USS Tennessee, the USS West Virginia was one of the battleships sunk into the mud by two Japanese bombs and six torpedoes on December 7, 1941. At 7:48, the attack commenced. Three hundred fifty-three Japanese planes, submarines, and bombers engaged Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor, striking seven of the eight ships there within a half hour. The USS Arizona received a mortal wound as an armor-piercing round struck its artillery magazine. The ensuing explosion and fire killed over 1,100 Americans. The USS West Virginia was one of the first ships sunk in the attack. This attack killed William Garnett Christian, along with over 100 of his shipmates aboard old “Wee Vee.” Many soldiers drowned, while others were blown to bits as the port side of the ship was blown wide open. She burned for thirty days, and then lay in the mud until May of 1942, when salvaging work began. Wee Vee would see her revenge when she pummeled the Japanese at Leyte, Iwo Jima, and sailed alongside the islands as Japan surrendered. Wee Vee’s triumph was executed in honor of Christian and all the more than 2,800 men killed in Pearl Harbor on that date which will live in infamy. The forces of liberty and justice for all prosecuted its greatest tribulation yet with merciless determination, achieving victory over the greatest axis of evil the world had yet seen on the shoulders of the more than 300,000 Americans who were casualties of this great clash between freedom and oppression.

Upon recovery of his body, William was returned to the state he grew up in to be buried. He was laid to rest in Willard Park Cemetery in Harriman, Tennessee.

Sources Consulted

“Battleship USS West Virginia (BB-48).” Accessed 16 May 2017. http://www.usswestvirginia.org.
East Tennessee Veterans Memorial Association. “William G. Christian.” Accessed 16 May 2017. https://etvma.org/veterans/william-g-christian-10552.
“William Garnett Christian.” Battleship USS West Virginia (BB-48). Accessed 16 May 2017. http://www.usswestvirginia.org/veterans/personalpage.php?id=619.

Article prepared by Atticus Hatfield, George Washington High School Advanced Placement U.S. History
2017

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William Garnett Christian

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