Reverend James Blakely of Brooklyn just turned 100, but his memories of “a date which will live in infamy” remain fresh.
He was a Navy officer assigned to the USS St. Louis (dubbed “The Lucky Lou”) in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked the Hawaii Naval station. Blakely survived the attack on the only light cruiser troop transport that made it out of Pearl Harbor that day; 18 ships in harbor were destroyed, and 2,403 people were killed. The attack thrust America into World War II.
Today, Blakely is considered to be the oldest known African-American Pearl Harbor veteran.
“I was on deck and a Japanese plane dropped a bomb that landed on our deck, but didn’t go off,” Blakely recalled as he was surrounded by family, friends and City Council members in Council Chambers for a Jan. 23 ceremony. “A couple of guys actually lifted it up and threw it over the side.”
The St. Louis dodged numerous attempts by the Japanese to destroy her, but somehow, missed being hit by torpedoes and was able to get out to sea and became an huge asset to the Navy – ferrying troops to war.
One of Blakely’s shipmates was Doris “Dorie” Miller — the first black man to win the Navy Cross for staying on an anti aircraft gun during the entire attack and then tending to wound soldiers. Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Defense announced it would name its next aircraft carrier in Miller’s honor.
“The Japanese fighter planes were all over the sky and they were shooting at anyone, including the women on the ground,” Blakely recalled. “I remember the [USS] Arizona – men were banging on the hull from the bottom, but you couldn’t get to them.”
Blakely was in the Navy through the war, ferrying troops and working on various ships, including service aboard the USS President Jackson in major combat operations in the Pacific Theater, including the battles of Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, the Marshal Islands and Guam, helping to transport troops to the battlefield and evacuate the dead and wounded.
But back then, racism and segregation were rampant both within the United States and the military.
“Arkansas, where I was born, was one of the meanest places for black people back then, and I think it still is,” Blakely said. “It hasn’t changed that much for people of my color and when the dirty work had to be done, we did it.”
Undeterred, Blakely served his country with strong resolve.
“I can forgive them, but I won’t forget what they did,” Blakely said referring to the Japanese. “They woke up a sleeping giant that day, and me with these strong hands was one of them.”
Council Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo joined Council colleagues in celebrating the 100th birthday of the Blakely, presenting him with a proclamation for his life of service. He was accompanied by veteran Clybern Sobell, currently 95, and also a Navy cook who served his country during World War II on the USS Bolivar, – serving meals to his fellow service members. Sobell, a father of four, is a retired MTA station cleaner.
“Today, at the age of 100, we are proud to celebrate him not only for his longevity but also for the tremendously positive impact he has had in so many lives,” Cumbo said. “We appreciate his service to our country, and are honored to share this milestone birthday with him and his family.”
“The contributions of our Black veterans often go unsung and unnoticed, but today we were able to recognize two amazing men, the Reverend James E. Blakely and Mr. Clyburn Sowell, whose life stories embody what it truly means to be heroes,” said Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo. “The celebration of Mr. Blakely’s 100th birthday is a blessing, a great accomplishment, and an incredible milestone for us to be able to share. We appreciate the service of men like James and Clyburn who have set a standard of excellence, bravery and courage, for generations to follow. We hope that this ceremony will bring awareness to the accomplishments of the Black veteran community.”
“It is truly an honor to celebrate a veteran of great distinction and now centenarian Reverend James E. Blakely,” said Council Member Farah Louis. “I proudly join my colleagues in recognizing his extraordinary legacy of service with the United States Navy, particularly during the deadly attack on Pearl Harbor and World War II. Thank you for your courage, strength, and heroic acts! I wish you the happiest of birthdays and many years of good health.”