S1c Billy Edwin Gibson,

Unknown Sailor

S1c Billy Edwin Gibson

Billy Edwin Gibson was a year older than his only sibling, Betty Jane, but they were like twins.

“We were always together doing work and in playing,” she wrote. “We began first grade together. We decided together unbeknownst to our parents to be baptized on a very cold Easter Sunday when we were in second grade of school. We hunted and trapped together. We danced together — winning a contest in our rendition of the jitterbug. So it is not easy to write his story.”

Betty Jane told her brother’s story 65 years after his death at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He was a seaman first class on the U.S.S. Arizona when he was killed in the Japanese attack.

In a book about her Gibson family, Betty Jane wrote that Billy was born June 1, 1921 in Atchison County in northeast Kansas to Walter Gibson, a farmer, and Clara Thomas Gibson, a homemaker. Walter had served in the Army in World War I and was in several major battles. “He was gassed, shell-shocked and wounded by machine gun fire in the Meuse-Argonne offensive,” his daughter wrote.

When the war ended, he returned to his family’s Kansas farm and married Clara. Both had graduated from Atchison County Community High School in Effingham — the same school later attended by their children.

The children helped their father on the farm, and during the winter he taught them how to trap muskrat and beaver for their hides. The Great Depression was hard on the family — as it was for most Americans — and drought made it even worse for farmers.

Walter Gibson killed himself at the age of 42 in January 1938. His widow sold their horses, cattle, hogs, hens, geese, tools, and furniture the next month and moved with her teen-age children to a rented house in town. She went back to school to renew her teaching certificate — a job she’d held before her marriage. 

Billy sometimes earned money working at a grocery store, and he also worked part-time on a farm. He competed in football and wrestling in high school and graduated in 1940. 

Betty Jane, who was 15 when their father died, concentrated on classes that would help her earn a teaching certificate. She worked before and after school at a bakery and graduated at 16.

After Billy graduated he moved to Atchison to live with an aunt and to work at the Locomotive Finished Material Co. He enlisted in the Navy in November 1940. In letters home he wrote that he loved his work and friends on the ship. A news article years after his death said his best friend was fellow Kansan Elwyn LeRoy Brown, who also died in the attack. It said their mothers had been classmates at Atchison County High. 

The American Legion organized a memorial service at First Christian Church in Atchison two months after Mr. Gibson’s death. A newspaper article invited every resident of northeast Kansas and northwest Missouri to attend. 

Billy’s mother visited the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Hawaii after it was dedicated in 1962. But his sister could not bring herself to go. “For two nights prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, I had the same nightmare,” she wrote. “Billy was drowning and calling my name. I walked on water to save him but was unable to do so.”

Betty Jane Gibson Gilbert was 95 when she died on Dec. 7, 2017.


Sources: Many thanks to Patricia Gilbert Cummings and Gary Gilbert, the children of Betty Jane, for sharing her book “One Gibson Family, ca 1705-2006.”  They also provided the photo of Billy Edwin Gibson. Other sources include the Atchison (Kansas) Daily Globe; Census; the Penwell-Gabel Funeral Home of Topeka, Kansas; and Navy muster rolls. This profile was researched and written on behalf of the U.S.S. Arizona Mall Memorial at the University of Arizona.

NOTE: If you are a family member related to this crew member of the U.S.S. Arizona, or have additional information, pictures or documents to share about his life or service to our county please contact us through our FAMILY MEMBER SUBMISSION FORM