Nestled in the heart of Texas, the modest town of Wills Point, home to just around 2,000 people, has a significant connection to the fateful events of December 7, 1941 – the attack on Pearl Harbor. The lives of four men, who made the ultimate sacrifice aboard the U.S.S. Arizona that day, were interwoven with the tapestry of this town. Another native son survived the ordeal, keeping their legacy alive.
Dee Cumpie “June” Ayers Jr., Horace Van “Benjy” Wood, Allen Brady Fincher, and Harvey Linville Havins – these are the names etched in Wills Point’s memory, intertwined with the horrors of Pearl Harbor. Their cousin, Brooxey J. Johnston Jr., survived the catastrophic event, serving as a living testament to their sacrifice.
Born on January 11, 1917, in nearby Kaufman County, Dee Cumpie Ayers Jr. was the son of Dee Cumpie Sr., a humble farmer, and Nannie Johnston Ayers, a dedicated homemaker. Tragically, the elder Ayers passed away in July 1937. Nannie found love again in Robert Burton Wood, a widower and the father of Horace Van Wood. With this union, Dee Cumpie and Benjy became step-brothers.
Education and athletics were central to the lives of these young men. Ayers and Wood graduated from Wills Point High School in 1935 and 1938, respectively. Meanwhile, their cousin Brooxey attended the same school before transferring to Rusk High School. Together, they were part of the formidable basketball team at the Cobb School, which clinched the 1932 Kaufman County junior championship.
The trio enlisted in the Navy, starting with Johnston on August 9, 1940. On the day of the infamous attack, he was serving as a gunner’s mate and petty officer third class. A harrowing explosion threw him overboard, but he was rescued and continued his service throughout World War II and the Korean War, retiring as a lieutenant commander.
Wood enlisted next on October 12, 1940, and sadly met his end aboard the U.S.S. Arizona, his body, like many of his fallen comrades, never recovered. Ayers was the last of the trio to enlist on March 7, 1941. He tragically drowned in the attack, his identity confirmed on December 10 by the name on his shorts. Ayers rests at the White Rose Cemetery in his hometown of Wills Point.
The circumstances that led the three relatives to serve together on the Arizona are unclear. However, the Navy, at the time, often honored requests from men wishing to serve together, believing it boosted camaraderie. This policy shifted after the Sullivan brothers, all five from Iowa, tragically perished when the U.S.S. Juneau sunk in November 1942.
Two other Wills Point natives, Allen Brady Fincher and Harvey Linville Havins, also met their untimely ends on the Arizona. Fincher had lived in Wills Point his entire life until he joined the Marines in 1940. Havins was born in Wills Point, moving away in the mid-’30s.
Dee Cumpie Ayers’ military journey began with his enlistment on March 7, 1941, and his assignment to the USS Arizona on June 7, 1941. He was promoted to S1c (Seaman First Class) just days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. His life was tragically cut short during the bombing of the USS Arizona on December 7, 1941.
His body was identified on December 10, 1941, at the US Naval Hospital in Pearl Harbor. The name “Ayers” on his shorts confirmed his identity, marking him as casualty number 388 in the US Naval Muster Reports. An application for a US Military Headstone was submitted on October 28, 1947, for Dee Cumpie Ayers, ensuring that he would be commemorated in the town that had nurtured him, at the White Rose Cemetery in Wills Point.
Indeed, the events of Pearl Harbor left an indelible imprint on Wills Point, Texas. The town gave some of its finest young men to a conflict that would reshape the world. The stories of Dee Cumpie Ayers, Horace Van Wood, Allen Brady Fincher, and Harvey Linville Havins bear witness to their courage, sacrifice, and unyielding love for their country.
The resilience and bravery exhibited by the survivor, Brooxey J. Johnston Jr., serve as an enduring testament to the spirit of these men. He not only survived the Pearl Harbor attack but also went on to fight valiantly in World War II and the Korean War. His life stands as a tribute to his fallen relatives and friends, reinforcing the deep connection between the people of Wills Point and their commitment to service and patriotism.
Each sunset over White Rose Cemetery is a reminder of these local heroes’ selflessness, forever echoing the words of Abraham Lincoln – “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”
As we remember Pearl Harbor, we remember Wills Point, Texas – the town that bore and nurtured heroes, and whose legacy remains woven into the very fabric of American history.
Sources: Special thanks to Terry W. Wood, a nephew of Horace Van Wood; also to Larry Turner of Wills Point, who has spent considerable time researching the local men on the Arizona. Mr. Turner provided a great deal of information. Other sources: Census, Texas death records; military headstone application. This profile was rewritten by “Operation 85” from researched and written material by Bobbi Jo Buel on behalf of the U.S.S. Arizona Mall Memorial at the University of Arizona.