Two Tales of Tragic Irony at Pearl Harbor

Ernest Davenport, left, and Austin Jackson. Both photos were published in the weekly Roanoke Beacon of Plymouth, North Carolina soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
On December 7, 1941, two young servicemen from eastern North Carolina were in the middle of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attacks on American forces that plunged the United States into World War II.

Neither U.S. Army Private Ernest Davenport nor Navy Seaman Austin Jackson would survive the war. And although thousands died on that long-ago Sunday, Davenport’s and Jackson’s deaths were touched by irony.

Davenport, a U.S. Army medic from the Washington County town of Creswell, was aboard a merchant ship that probably was the first ship sunk by the Japanese attacks in the Pacific. Jackson from Jamesville in adjoining Martin County was aboard a U.S. battleship docked at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Davenport was only two years old when his father was killed in an accident in 1920. His mother remarried, and Davenport grew up on a farm. Times were tough during the Great Depression, and he left school to go to work after finishing the eighth grade in 1934.

In 1939, Davenport joined the U.S. Army, in part to earn money to send his half-sister, Olean Clifton, to college.

On December 7, 1941, Davenport was one of two Army soldiers aboard the SS Cynthia Olson. The privately owned transport ship had been chartered by the Army to haul a load of lumber from Tacoma, Washington to Honolulu, Hawaii.

The Olson was approaching Hawaii on the morning of December 7. But the crew did not know that a Japanese submarine, the I-26, had been following it since the previous day, waiting for orders to begin the attack on U.S. forces.

On the morning of December 7 the commander of the I-26 received coded orders from Tokyo for all Japanese ships to commence the attack. He immediately surfaced and his crew fired a warning shot across the bow of the Cynthia Olson indicating that the I-26 was about to attack the American ship.

The crew of the Olson lowered lifeboats into the water and abandoned the ship. The I-26 crew then opened fire with the submarine’s deck gun. Eventually, the Olson sank and the I-26 left.

Although Japanese planes were on their way to Hawaii, the I-26’s attack on the Cynthia Olson happened shortly before bombs started falling on Pearl Harbor. So the Olson probably was the first American ship sunk by the Japanese on December 7. And although Davenport and the other members of the Olson’s crew reportedly all made it into lifeboats, no trace of them was ever found.

Austin Jackson’s death was even more emotionally wrenching than Davenport’s. His ship, the USS California, was among the seven battleships sunk by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor. More than 2,300 American soldiers and sailors were killed that day. In the chaotic aftermath of the attack, it was difficult to determine who had died.

On December 12, Jackson’s mother, Ora Jackson Burnette, was visiting relatives in Plymouth when a stunning telegram arrived from the Navy telling her that her son had been killed at Pearl Harbor. The following day, photos of the baby-faced Austin Jackson were published in local newspapers with the news that he’d died on the “day of infamy.”

But on New Year’s Day 1942, Ora Burnette received a card from her son dated December 12 – five days after the attack. The following day, she received another message from the Navy saying that her son was indeed alive.

Her joy was only temporary, however.

In March 1942 Burnette received yet another telegram from the Navy. This time there was no mistake. Austin Jackson was dead. Then a letter dated March 21 arrived from Jackson’s commanding officer, Navy Lieutenant F.W. Purdy.

In the edgy days following the attack on December 7, military commanders in Hawaii were certain that the Japanese were going to bomb Honolulu again. So they set up anti-aircraft guns around the islands. Since Jackson’s ship, the California, was undergoing repairs, he had been assigned to the crew of one of the guns.

Around 3 a.m. on February 12, 1942, Jackson was reporting for his duty shift at one of the guns. In the darkness, he tripped. He fell onto a rifle with a bayonet attached. He died soon afterwards.

Jackson’s body eventually was returned to the U.S., and he’s buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

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