Witnesses to Infamy: The survivors of the attack on the battleship USS Arizona

People, Photography, Video

When we started this project there were 10: ten living survivors from the Japanese attack on the USS Arizona that killed 1,177 sailors and sank the ship on December 7, 1941 at Pearl Harbor. They were scattered around the country, and Shaun McKinnon and I were going to track them down and photograph all of them, or so we hoped. It’s without a doubt one of the biggest and most challenging assignments of my career, and one that was very personal to me. Both of my grandfathers who served in WWII have passed away. We are losing so many of our WWII veteran to old age. Of the 335 survivors of the attack on the USS Arizona, there were 10 left when we started this project. This was an opportunity of a lifetime to meet history face to face and hopefully preserve it for future generations.

Shaun spent the good part of a year tracking the survivors down, one by one. Each of these men are in their 90s. Some are part of the USS Arizona Reunion Association while others were much harder to get ahold of. We booked trips as soon as they agreed to meet us. By September we traveled to Nevada, California, Colorado, and Utah and had interviewed six survivors. At the end of September we got word that Thomas Migliaccio Sr of Colchester, Conn, had passed away. Now there were nine. The following months took us to Oklahoma, New Mexico and Rhode Island.

Listening to these men describe their experiences was a privilege. Their stories are filled with examples of self sacrifice and bravery. Don Stratton returned to military service after being burned over 65% of his body. He went on to be part of the invasion of Okinawa. John Anderson risked his life to return to the ship to look for his twin brother. Lou Conter, after experiencing a sneak attack, went on to become a navy pilot and spent much of the war attacking Japanese ships in the Pacific. For all of these men, December 7 wasn’t then end of the story. It was the beginning.

The resulting stories on AZCentral won a 2014 Headline Award and was named the Best multimedia story in Gannett in 2014. The my short documentary Witnesses to Infamy won an 2015 Rocky Mountain Emmy award.

I made all of the portraits with a Hasselblad 503CX film camera- a classic cameras for a classic story.