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Gone, but not forgotten

Dorothy Davis was always happy to see her older cousins, Joe and James Fritcher.

When she was a child, she thought she’d never see them again.

The Fritcher brothers served in the U.S. Navy on the USS California in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Initial news was they had perished that horrible day. The Post-Signal even reported the news of their deaths on Dec. 18.

But the news turned out to be erroneous. The Fritchers, who hailed from Pilot Point, had indeed survived the attack from the Japanese. Mrs. Davis, who was 10 at the time of the attack, and others in the family would be elated when they eventually saw Joe and James again one day.

And Joe didn’t mind telling stories about what happened on Dec. 7, 1941.

“When that thing started sinking, he went over the side,” said Mike Fritcher, his nephew. “He got over to the bank and he found James, and James was pretty upset.”

“He was crying,” said Mrs. Davis, who lives in Pilot Point.

“He said, ‘We’re gonna get those SOBs,” said Fritcher, who owns Selz & Henzler Insurance Agency Inc. in Pilot Point.

“I don’t think he minced words,” Mrs. Davis said.

“He probably had some choice adjectives to add to it,” Fritcher said.

Mrs. Davis and Fritcher talked this week about Joe and James ahead of Wednesday’s 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. The attack killed 2,403 Americans and thrust the U.S. into World War II.

James Fritcher was 19 at the time of the attack. Older brother Joe was 26. The two men died a few weeks apart from each other in 2011: Joe, 95, died Jan. 31, and James, 89, died March 10.

Mike Fritcher is the son of the late Henry Fritcher, brother of James and Joe. The fourth Fritcher child was Eloise. Henry and Eloise both died in 1993.

“When they were on the same ship, they looked out for each other,” Mrs. Davis said of Joe and James. “Joe said if James had a pass to go into town or something, he would bring Joe back a quart of milk. If Joe was the one who was gone, he would bring James back a quart of milk. See, they were raised on the farm and they were used to drinking that (kind of milk). They looked out for each other.”

Both James and Joe were assigned to different ships after the Pearl Harbor attack. The two men continued to serve in the Navy after the war. James served in the Navy until 1962. Joe served in the 1946 expedition Operation High Jump to the South Pole with Admiral Richard Byrd.

After the war, Joe became a licensed mortician and was a self-employed lumber broker and lived in Tyler. James retired from the Navy and worked in the gunsmith profession for 35 years; he also worked for Roahr Aircraft in Chula Vista, Calif., where he lived for many years.

Besides serving on the USS California, Joe served on the USS Astoria, which was sunk in the Battle of Savo Island during a battle with the Japanese in August 1942.

“The guys that didn’t get killed in the battle were in the water for quite a few hours,” Fritcher said. “It was a pretty dicey deal with the sharks. Joe was bleeding. He had a lot of shrapnel in his legs in the battle.”

The ship’s personnel eventually got picked up, and Joe never got any infections.

After getting a telegram that the two had died in the Pearl Harbor attack, a postcard arrived informing the family the two men were OK. Henry took a phone call in January 1942 informing the family that Joe and James were still alive, according to a Post-Signal story in December 1991.

“Granddad didn’t think they were dead,” Fritcher said.

“He couldn’t believe they were both gone,” Mrs. Davis said.

A memorial was held for James and Joe at the Methodist Church. Fritcher’s father and grandfather didn’t attend because they thought they were still alive. Joe’s future wife, Dorothy Cheatham, sang in the choir at the service.

“You can imagine what I remembered about that; (I recall) what I was told,” she said. “Mom and them were real sad because they thought their nephews were gone.”

The two men differed in one respect: Joe didn’t mind discussing his war experiences. James was reluctant to speak about it.

“Joe even came up here and gave a lecture one night,” Mrs. Davis said, explaining it was at the high school.

“He did that a lot,” Fritcher said. “I don’t know when he started, but he’d go to clubs, like Kiwanis or Lions.”

As for James, he was 19 when the Pearl Harbor attack occurred, and Fritcher thinks the experience traumatized him more than Joe.

“It wasn’t a fun deal at all for him,” Fritcher said, referring to James’ reticence in relating his war experiences.

“And it took him until he was about ready to die before he gave his story,” Mrs. Davis said.

James spoke to the Curry County Reporter in Gold Beach, Ore., in 2010. He lived in Oregon during the summer and fall.

“It was indescribable; there were planes everywhere dropping torpedoes and bombs,” he told the newspaper. “We really didn’t know what was going on, it happened so fast. But the rising suns on the planes made it clear who was doing it. They managed to get the ship into shallower water and it began resting in the mud. They ordered everyone off, so we used the tie lines to rappel into the water and we swam 50 yards to shore through the oil in the water.”

The story noted that around 100 officers and men from the California died that day.

Mrs. Davis and Fritcher reminisced about their family, discussing family members’ names and relationships. Eventually, the conversation turned back to James and Joe.

“We loved them dearly,” Mrs. Davis said. “They were our heroes.”

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