Sheldon Sampson has taken his mother and son to the Pearl Harbor memorial. He’s studied the Japanese sneak attack that drew the United States into the second World War 75 years ago this week. But he never watches the TV documentaries about Dec. 7, 1941.
“There are some things I don’t do,” the retired math teacher said from his home in Faribault, Minn. “I don’t watch any of the stuff about Pearl Harbor. It’s not something I can manage. It seems weird that that stuff still gets you after 75 years, but it still does.”
Sampson turned 75 on July 1. He never knew his father, Sherley Sampson, but he has been a faithful keeper of the family history.
The story begins in the late 1930s, when Sherley Sampson was working as a radio repairman up in the northwestern Minnesota town of Erskine. That’s when he met Fern Vivian Hole — at a roller-skating rink near Maple Lake, which sprawls like a scepter between his hometown in Crookston and her home 30 miles east in Erskine.
Fern and Sherley were married in Crookston on June 14, 1940. Six months later, Sherley enlisted in the U.S. Navy. By then, Fern was already pregnant with their first child.
“My father was employed in the Navy on the West Coast when I was born,” said Sheldon, whom everyone calls Sam. “He never got back again.”
As a radioman third class, Sherley’s duties included transmitting and receiving radio signals and enciphering and deciphering messages. It must have been a dream job for a kid who grew up fiddling with shortwave radios. That radio work took him to Hawaii, which must have seemed like paradise compared with frigid northwestern Minnesota. He landed a Navy job on a 26-year-old battleship launched during the first World War, the USS Arizona.
Sherley Sampson is still there — one of the 1,177 crewmen who died aboard and remain entombed in the wreckage of the Arizona, which sank during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Sherley Sampson was 24 and one of 27 Minnesotans who went down with the Arizona.
Growing up fatherless back in Minnesota, Sheldon said a large extended family helped.
“One of my uncles called me ‘Skipper,’ ” he said. “My grandparents came to visit and everyone was pretty good to me. Generally speaking, my childhood wasn’t too much different than the others. There were a lot of guys who didn’t have fathers in those days.”
Sadly, tragic loss was a way of life for the Sampson family. Sherley Sampson was the oldest of three children of Inez and Ernest Sampson, who worked as a Great Northern Railway lineman in Crookston. Their youngest child, a daughter named Mary Lou, drowned in 1933 in the Red Lake River that twists through Crookston. She was 10 and attending a Sunday school picnic.
Less than 15 months after Sherley died on the Arizona, his younger brother, Russell Sampson, was killed at the Del Valle Air Field base in Austin, Texas. He had just turned 22 and was working as a mechanic when a plane crashed at the base. None of Inez and Ernest Sampson’s three children lived long enough to see a 25th birthday.
But life, somehow, went on. Six years after Pearl Harbor Day, right around Christmas, Sherley’s widow remarried a telephone lineman named Aron Trandem in Erskine.
“It was kind of my mother’s Christmas present for me,” Sheldon said. “My stepdad really was my dad during my growing up years.”
When the telephone company transferred his stepfather, the family moved 30 miles east to Bagley, Minn., where Sheldon graduated high school in 1959. He thought about following his birth father into the military.
“I actually did a pre-induction physical but they gave me a 4-A deferment as the sole surviving son in my family,” he said.
That was in early 1963, the fledgling days of the Vietnam War. There weren’t many U.S. troops in Southeast Asia — not yet. Sheldon graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1963 with a degree in math and German. He spent four months working on a farm in Germany and then came home and crisscrossed the state as a middle- and high-school math, computer and German teacher.
His teaching career included stints in Truman, Clarkfield, Barnesville and 27 years in Lakefield in southwestern Minnesota. He retired in 1998, remarried and moved to Faribault, where he spent a decade as a part-time technology specialist at a Catholic elementary school.
In 1984, Sampson took his 67-year-old mother, Fern, and his 12-year-old son, Michael, to the Arizona memorial to pay their respects to a father, husband and grandfather.
“I do look quite a bit like him,” Sheldon said. “Similar size and facial resemblance. Of course, he was not very old when he died, so I have no idea what he would have looked like at 75.”
His son Michael, an attorney in Vadnais Heights, always sends him an e-mail each Dec. 7. Sheldon has no special plans to commemorate this 75th anniversary.
“Time has a way of making things disappear,” he said. “But I’ve always wondered if other people who had a father on the Arizona might be able to meet sometime.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.