CSKA Milton Henry Gross,

Unknown Sailor

CSKA Milton Henry Gross

Letters home are the best source of information about the 1,177 Sailors and Marines killed on the U.S.S. Arizona in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. Letters give a glimpse of a man’s personality and his daily life aboard ship.

Of the dozens of letters this researcher has been fortunate to read, none can match the panache of one from Milton Henry Gross to the editor of the newspaper in Onawa, Iowa, a town of about 2,300 in Iowa’s northwest.

Dated March 28, 1929, and sent from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Mr. Gross was then serving aboard the U.S.S. Pennsylvania.

He wrote after the Onawa Democrat published a brief article in February saying that his sister Edith Crane had received a letter from him in the Panama Canal Zone. That letter was carried by Charles Lindbergh in the first air-mail delivery from the Canal Zone to the United States.

“After hearing about it mentioned in your publication,” Mr. Gross wrote, “I have decided to write to you myself and tell you just what the reasons are for my being here, and what I think of it.

“To begin with: I, perhaps, am not very well known around Onawa, but the family as a whole have many friends and acquaintances there, and are fairly well (if not favorably) known. Most of my life was spent within a few miles of Onawa, but was just that few miles too great a distance for me to make very many friends the short visits I frequently made. 

“I had a very good home and all that, but after a certain age a man wants to get out and do something that he has never done before and he thinks that he can do better away from all former acquaintances.

“I had always thought that my parents did not understand me. I have since found out that they understood me perfectly. The trouble was that I didn’t understand them.

“After recovering from a party in which an automobile accident figured up into the triple cyphers, I had a heart to heart talk with the postmaster, Mr. Bruce Harlow, I believe, and took unto myself a lot of necessary and otherwise information about the proper steps to take to get into the Navy service.

“Up until that time I had only a very dim conception of our Navy. Just vaguely aware that we had a Navy and nothing more.

“Two hours in the recruiting station in Sioux City, 12 hours in the station (not Police), naval at Des Moines, two months at the Naval training station at Great Lakes, Ill., where by the way, I learned a great deal about human nature and the defects of mankind, and two years at sea on one of the best battleships ever built have taught me a lot more than even the Secretary of the Navy would have deemed possible had he the honor (?) to gaze upon me on the day of my enlistment.

“Nothing would be farther from my thoughts than to tell you that no other life can equal this. Ask any sailor who has just come off a twelve to four watch. He can give you the lowdown a lot better than I can write it. There are lots of other places and conditions that I would wish myself into if I could. However, I don’t believe in fairies and I know that Aladdin’s lamp was lost during the Civil War, so what’s the use.

“For an unattached young man I can think of no better place (if he has that same trouble I had in trying to make a pair of ends meet) than in the Navy.

“Nothing fancy about it. Just plain stuff, like most of us are. But what I mean to say is, it teaches you to do businesslike things in a businesslike way. There is nothing, for instance, like the thrill that comes from firing a five (or fourteen) inch gun.

“But to start at the beginning, there is nothing like being a part of a company on a drill field under arms. The thrill you get from being a unit in a perfectly organized and drilled battalion while doing a few ‘Squads East’ or ‘West” is not to be duplicated. In fact, it’s a life of thrills all the way up to the fifteen ball.

“Money? What is money when you have all the necessities of life? But still, it’s an item that can’t be overlooked. For myself, I have been drawing $54 a month, in addition to $4 gunnery money for the last five months, for a year. That’s as good or better than the average, but if a man puts his mind on it and studies his job; applies himself to it, there’s no reason why he can’t do better than that.

“Personally, I’ve been laying down on the job. Haven’t been studying as I should and all that, but I’m satisfied, and that’s more than I ever was in civilian life.

“If you care to save money there’s all kinds of chances to do so, but I don’t think I joined the Navy to save money. In fact, I have been thinking of offering a reward to anyone who can tell me the correct reason why I did join. It’s by me.

“I have a little money stuffed away down in the last year’s sock, but that’s just because I want to make a leave in the old town again this summer.

“For a while I had almost decided not to come back again. I was there last summer, came all the way from Seattle and spent $76 on the trainfare alone, (how well I remember that amount) and not a single band on the station platform to welcome me back! What a disappointment!

“However, the band may have been on a vacation or something, so I’ve forgotten the city for lack of interest in one of its native sons and I’m going to come back again next summer.

“You see I’m telling you this time so there won’t be any excuse for not having the band there. They can arrange their vacation for some other time.

“In order not to disappoint the children will you please notify them that there will be no dimes thrown from the observation platform. Also, to avoid a great disappointment on the part of some of the grown ups, post a notice to the effect that there will be no box of cigars, free to all on the counter of Todd’s market.”

Mr. Gross, then a seaman first class, signed off his letter, “Inform the girls that I am still single.”

It isn’t known whether he ever made it back to Iowa, where his father, William was a farmer and his mother, Jennie Wickersham Gross, a homemaker. She died in 1939.

Milton Gross, born March 18, 1906, was one of 10 children. He finished 7th grade, then farmed with his father until he enlisted in about 1927. Mr. Gross married Dorothy Weir in December 1931 in Los Angeles. Their son, Rodney, was born about 1934. A Navy muster roll said Mr. Gross first went aboard the U.S.S. Arizona in 1937.

What happened to the marriage is unclear, but in 1938 Rodney was adopted by Ruth and Mead French. They lived in San Pedro, California, home port for the Arizona. A news article many years later said Mr. Gross agreed to the adoption because, in the event of his death, he wanted to save the boy from an orphanage.

Rodney French graduated from San Pedro High School, then enlisted in the Army in 1954. He had finished his service and was living in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1958 when the Veterans Administration helped him find one of Mr. Gross’s sisters, Effie, in Onawa. That Fourth of July weekend he traveled to Iowa and met more than 60 relatives.

“After meeting such a pleasant young man, the family agreed on one thing,” the Onawa Sentinel reported. “Rodney’s foster parents loved him dearly and raised him to be a lad that his father would have been very proud of.”

Milton Henry Gross was a storekeeper and chief petty officer on the Arizona when he was killed at Pearl Harbor in the Japanese attack.


Sources: Special thanks to Joey Rickabaugh, a second great-niece of Mr. Gross, for photographs and other information. Other sources include: the Onawa (Iowa) Sentinel; the Onawa Democrat; the Chula Vista (California) Star-News; the News-Pilot of San Pedro, California; Census; Veterans Administration; California marriage license; World War II draft registration card. This profile was researched and written on behalf of the U.S.S. Arizona Mall Memorial at the University of Arizona.

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