Unknown Sailor

SC3c P. W. Cornelius

There were two men named P.W. Cornelius in the Navy when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. That was just the beginning of many similarities, but one all-important difference.

The father of Texan Phillip Cornelius was full of worry because he knew his son was on the U.S.S. Arizona, one of the ships sunk. But then the Navy informed him that his son had been transferred to the Sarasota, a carrier that was near San Diego on Dec. 7.

The relieved father wrote to Phillip, only to receive a letter back a few weeks later from the other P.W. — a Philip with one “l”. “This is the hardest thing I have ever had to explain, but I am not your son,” wrote the other P.W.

The mistake, while awful, was not the only one that occurred in the early days of the war, when records were kept on paper and in different locations. Most of the Arizona’s personnel records were in the executive officer’s office below the forward deck, but after the ship exploded and sank, their recovery was far from a priority.

Besides, the similarities between the two men were many. Both had Wayne as a middle name. Both joined the Navy in 1940. Both had a father named Fred. Both fathers had four sons and a daughter.

Phillip, known as P.W., was a cook and petty officer third class when he died on the Arizona. He was born in Sept. 25, 1915 to Fred, a farmer, and Myrtle, a homemaker. The 1920 Census shows the family living in the north Texas county of Collingsworth. About a week after that census was completed, Myrtle died on the same day she gave birth to another son.

The other P.W., Philip Wayne Cornelius, was born in Iowa in 1922. He served 20 years in the military, including working as a cryptologic technician at the National Security Agency. He died in Iowa in 2017 well into his nineties.


Sources: The Lubbock (Texas) Avalanche-Journal; the Wellington (Texas) Leader; the Dubuque (Iowa) Telegraph Herald; Census records, grave markers. Family photographs. 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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