I miss a man I never met. Howard Keniston. He had two sons. He lost two sons. On the USS Arizona on December 7, 1941 — a day that shall indeed “forever live in infamy.”
I became connected with Howard Keniston when my nephew made a business trip to Hawaii and sent back a photo of the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. That image — of a majestic memorial which “straddles the sunken hull of the ship without touching it” — stirred a distant memory that my parents bought our first home from a man who lost two sons on the Arizona.
This fuzzy memory would resurface from time to time on a December 7th or upon seeing a heartbreaking image of the USS Arizona sinking, taking 1,177 sailors and marines to a watery grave. My parents and brother had passed away and whenever I would mention this “memory” to my older sister, she said she had no such recollection.
But this time I decided to do some fact-checking on the computer—which quickly provided a list of the 37 sets of brothers on the Arizona, 23 of whom went down with the ship. The only names on the list from my native Ohio were “Miller” and “Keniston.”
My parents bought our first house at 1629 Clio Avenue in Cincinnati in 1935. So I found an online 1934 Cincinnati Directory of Names and Addresses. There was no Miller match under M, but under K, there it was—“Howard Keniston, 1629 Clio Avenue.” Further confirmation came from an online photo of the Keniston family tombstone—“Howard, wife Ada, sons Kenneth and Donald, died Dec. 7, 1941, on the USS Arizona.”
The boys, of course, are not buried in that family plot in Cincinnati. A registry lists their cemetery as the “USS Arizona” and cause of death as “explosive device.” Japanese torpedo bombs ripped open the hull of the Arizona, the massive ship sinking in a mere nine minutes. Kenneth’s rank was fireman third class, Donald’s seaman second class, or F3c and S2c in naval terms.
But curiosity about the Kennistons led to a surprising discovery. Howard’s wife Ada—next to the sons’ name on the family tombstone—was not the boys’ mother. I found a 1930 census listing for a divorced telephone operator named Bernette Keniston—with sons Kenneth and Donald, ages 7 and 6, a perfect match for their ages of 18 and 17 eleven years later at Pearl Harbor. And a 1922 marriage license for Howard and Bernette Keniston confirmed she was the mother, not Ada.
I dug deeper to learn more about Howard Keniston, the boys’ father. His own father died young, forcing his mother to go to work in a cigar factory while Howard, 14, worked as an errand boy in a store. I got my first glimpse of Howard when he enlisted in WW I, his registration form describing him as being of “medium height and slender build with blue eyes and light-colored hair.” I imagine his boys looked like him.
Howard and Bernette both remarried in 1930, Howard and his new wife settling into the Clio Avenue house while Bernette made a new home for the boys in downtown Cincinnati, literally next door to Crosley Field, home of the Cincinnati Reds. I envisioned the boys hearing every crack of the bat and running out to retrieve the home-run balls that landed on Western Avenue. But suddenly they were in the Navy and being shipped off to Pearl Harbor, half a world away. And then, just as suddenly, they were gone.
Howard and Bernette were devastated when the news came. He never had any other children than those boys. He worked for years as a bus driver, and I imagine every young boy — or young man in uniform — who hopped onto Howard’s bus reminded him of his own boys who died all too young. For you and me and our country.
And what of that other Gold Star family, the Millers? Sons Jessie and Stanley grew up on the family farm near Marysville, Ohio. The Millers were celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary when reports of Pearl Harbor came crackling over the radio. Ten years later, they very purposely went to Hawaii for their 40th anniversary. Mrs. Miller, who always put flowers into a small stream near their farmhouse every December 7th, this time placed two flowers in the water over the Arizona. Attached to each was a handwritten note, “These are from your mother.”
After his second wife died, Howard Keniston lived another thirty years. I imagine they were rather lonely years, fleeting images of his sons coming to mind most every day. May we honor all those who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor and prepare for a 75th anniversary next year. Perhaps flowers will be placed in the water above the Arizona with handwritten notes for the Keniston boys of Ohio. May they rest in peace.
James F. Burns is an Ohio native and retired professor at the University of Florida.