S1c John Dayton Rodgers
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S1c John Dayton Rodgers
In a letter home in July 1941, Seaman John Dayton Rodgers said he was writing from the third deck of the U.S.S. Arizona. “The reason for my being here is the fact that all lights are out except here. This is under the water so they don’t turn them out down here. They darken the ship at sea all of the time now. Not a light is shown.”
On Oct. 29 he gave another hint that the Navy was taking more seriously the possibility of war. “We stand twenty-four hour watch on gun stations now. The watch lasts four hours apiece.”
That was the last letter his family still has from him. Mr. Rodgers was a seaman first class when he was killed on the Arizona in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.
Mr. Rodgers wrote the letters to his younger sister, later Ruth Rodgers Henrich, and her family in western Pennsylvania. Years later she gave them to her son, Robert, who realized their significance to the family and published them in a book in 2011.
The letters included many descriptions of life on the battleship, a small town 597 feet long that was home to 1,500 Sailors and Marines. “We have a soda fountain, laundry, tailor shop, barbers and stores,” the 21-year-old Mr. Rodgers wrote in January 1941, shortly after he joined the crew of the Arizona. “I can buy anything from a bucket to a watch on here.”
In June 1941 the Arizona visited its home port at San Pedro, California, for two weeks. “A good many of the boys were married” during that stay, Mr. Rodgers noted.
“Well I never thought I would see the day when I would be steering a battleship. But I am now,” he told Ruth in July. “I stand two hours in the morning and two at night on the wheel. There are seven deck divisions and each division furnishes a helmsman. The helmsman is relieved every two hours by another man from another division.” Helmsmen worked on the bridge, taking orders from the officer of the deck about where to steer. Mr. Rodgers concluded that he didn’t “care much for it though, too much responsibility.”
“If you think you were busy, you should have seen us today,” Mr. Rodgers wrote in September. “We were over in one of the Navy’s supply ships. And we took on close to fifteen tons of beef. Not to mention other supplies. We usually take on supplies about every two or three weeks. The store rooms on here would put some of the biggest stores to shame.”
Mr. Rodgers was born Jan. 17, 1920 in Wilkins, a township about 12 miles east of Pittsburgh. His father, George Rodgers, was a home decorator and his mother, Susie Fisher Rodgers, a homemaker. She died of cervical cancer when John Dayton was nine and Ruth was seven. They were the youngest of five children.
Dayton, as he was called, attended Union High School in Turtle Creek. He was a swimmer and hoped to compete in the 1940 Olympics, but that plan was scuttled because of the war in Europe. Instead, Mr. Rodgers enlisted in the Navy on March 12, 1940. Finland, the upcoming host, officially canceled the Olympics the next month.
VFW Post 6681, formed in 1946 in Wilkins, was named in honor of Mr. Rodgers. It merged with another post in 2018 and now carries the number 5008.
Sources: Special thanks to Robert C. Henrich for sharing the book he compiled with his uncle’s letters and the photograph. Other sources are: the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; Census; Navy muster roll; Pennsylvania death certificate. This profile was researched and written on behalf of the U.S.S. Arizona Mall Memorial at the University of Arizona.