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The City Journals

Two Murrayites lives forever changed at Pearl Harbor

Nov 22, 2021 12:18PM ● By Shaun Delliskave

Two Murrayites, Ernest Gargaro (l) and Brent Erickson (r), were at Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. (Photo courtesy University of Utah, Laurie Densley)

By Shaun Delliskave | [email protected]

The date that will live in infamy marks its 80th anniversary this year. Two Murrayites were witnesses at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and their lives were forever changed when the Japanese attacked their ships.

Brent Erickson and Ernest Russell Gargaro, both born in Murray, joined the US Navy in January 1940 and April 1941 respectively. The idea that a sneak attack would happen to them in the Hawaiian Islands didn’t cross their minds when they enlisted.

Gargaro was born in Murray on May 21, 1919, to Italian immigrants Mike and Marie Christina Gargaro. His parents tried to eke out a living by opening a confectionery and grocery store in downtown Salt Lake City.

His ailing father needed him and his brother to help mind the store and later moved the entire family to the apartment above the business. Gargaro ended up attending West High School and took up boxing.

However, his father died at age 49, leaving the 19-year-old Gargaro to search for ways to support his family. Ernest tried working for several photo studios around the western US but took the opportunity to enlist when his country called for volunteers in the armed services. 

Gargaro was among the first in Utah to muster under the Selective Service Act in 1940. Originally scheduled to be in the army, Gargaro’s enlistment was changed to the navy, and he was assigned duty aboard the USS Arizona. 

Seamen Second Class Gargaro was present when bombs tore into the Arizona. Listed as missing in action, his widowed mother didn’t know the status of her son until February 1942—killed in action. Gargaro’s remains are still aboard the USS Arizona, and his name is listed on the memorial above it.

Also listed as missing in action on that day was Brent Erickson. Brent was a third-generation Murrayite, starting with his Swedish grandfather, who worked in the Murray smelters.

“My Uncle Brent joined the US Navy on his 18th birthday in January of 1940. After basic training, [he was] assigned to serve in the Pacific on a minelayer, the USS Oglala,” his niece Laurie Erickson Densley said.

The Oglala lay moored in the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard opposite the Arizona. As Erickson ate breakfast, the attack commenced, and the order was given, “All hands on deck.” 

According to Densley, “Brent said he was really scared. He ran to his assigned place. He saw Japanese warplanes sweeping down toward them. He told me one pilot was so close that he knew if he saw him again, he would recognize him to this day.”

A torpedo detonated through the ship’s port side, and the commander gave the order to abandon ship. To make matters worse, the crew had to scurry over the burning USS Helena to make it to safety on the pier. 

“Brent and a few other sailors were able to find refuge in a machine shop. He said it was at this time that he realized he still had scrambled egg in his mouth from breakfast. While they were hiding in there, roll call was taken for the Oglala sailors. Brent was listed as missing in action because he wasn’t there,” Densley said.

On Christmas Day 1941, his worried parents finally received word that their son was safe. But, while not wounded physically, like many veterans, Brent had mental scars. 

“Brent was plagued by PTSD from that day on. Because of this, he was given an honorable discharge and was sent home. Though over time he improved, he was always nervous and spoke with a bit of a stutter,” Densley said.

He returned home and worked as a justice of the peace. He also led the Utah Chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association and was willing to talk to schoolchildren about his experience in his niece Laurie’s classrooms. 

He died in 1998; his widow, Maggie, still lives in Murray.