Thursday, December 08, 2016

A first-hand account of the attack on Pearl Harbor

Sailors stand amid the wrecked planes.
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

My uncle, John McCallum Anderson, wrote to a family member on December 30, 1941, from Wahiawa, Hawaii:

No doubt you've heard that we had quite a bit of excitement here on December 7th, and I'm sure that Gram Lyser had given you the news fairly complete as to all of us. All the same, perhaps you'd like to hear about the crazy way we behaved that morning. At first I was going to write you in detail but wasn't sure that it would be passed by the censor, but now that it has all been published in the papers by permission of the authorities, I feel that my story has a lot less information and is therefor quite safe.

As Barbara has possibly told you, our house in Wahiawa is situated on a hill where we have a commanding view of the nearby airfield and Army Post. We are perhaps two and one-half miles distant in a straight line from the airfield and have seen so many planes flying around at all times that we don't pay a great deal of attention to them, unless it happens to be a particularly large flight or something like that.

On this particular Sunday morning, [wife]Eleanor and I were laying half awake trying to convince ourselves that it was time to get up when we heard the noise of planes. From the sound we knew that there were many of them, and I remarked to her that the Army boys "sure are getting a workout this morning." We didn't bother to look out the window until we heard a big boom that made us sit up and take notice. In the direction of the airfield there was rising a cloud of black smoke into which planes were diving and there were continued explosions and still more smoke.

We speculated on the cause of the this unusual activity, and I suggested that it was practice with live bombs, but Eleanor was sure it was sabotage. It was such a big show that we decided that we should get closer and see what was going on. We dressed hurriedly and sketchily (as we most certainly know how), and the four of us piled into the car. Tippy, [daughter]Charlotte's pup, was the fourth. About a mile from the house, on the way down California Avenue, a plane with guns blazing dived down across the road immediately over our car. 

There was one other car on that stretch of road, and it was only about twenty yards ahead of us. The other car stopped at once, so we sailed past it discussing the antics of the plane. I told Eleanor that it must have been firing blanks. When we thought of it later, we knew that it must have been shooting at us for some reason (or no reason). Since we didn't hear or feel any bullets, this incident didn't faze us at all, and we kept on going.

I decided that right in the Army post would be the best place to see things, so we started to go in, but were stopped at the gate by the guard. He didn't offer any explanation, and, as he was very busy, we didn't ask for any. We went back to the main highway than, and, turning towards Honolulu, drove slowly past the airfield. When we came to a spot where we had an unobstructed view, we parked and looked things over. We could see one hangar on fire and some burning planes out on the field. By this time there were no planes in the air. After parking for perhaps four or five minutes, we heard sounds of firing from the direction of Pearl Harbor, so took off in that direction to satisfy our curiosity.

We still hadn't spoken to anyone and still held to our first theories as to the cause of it all. On reaching a good view spot on the Kamehamea Highway, about four miles from Pearl Harbor, we parked at the roadside and took it all in. Clouds of black smoke were rising from some of the ships and we could see the flashes from the ships' guns. Planes were diving all around with shells bursting about them. By this time I realized that my idea of practice bombing was all wet and thought Eleanor's idea of sabotage more possible.

It was a good show, but we were beginning to feel the pangs of hunger and decided to head for home and breakfast via the grocery store. When we reached the store, we found everybody very excited, and the told us that the radio had announced that was an attack by the Japanese. I believe that the announcer's actual words were "This is no simulated attack but the real McCoy." It seems hard to believe, but this was the first time that we really knew that all was not well.

Just about then we decided unanimously that we should be at home, but before we could get our purchases assembled, the second attack began. Planes were zooming all over the place it seemed, and we could hear things whizzing by outside. Bullets and bomb fragments, I guess. This time there was a reception committee on hand and the Japs must have decided that it was a little too warm for them, because they didn't stay very long. While we were standing in the doorway of the store we saw a Jap plane crash about 200 yards from us and burst into flames. We heard later that that it was shot down and that it had set fire to two Jap houses when it crashed. Thing quieted down pretty soon, and we headed for home to turn on the radio to get wise to everything.

When we reached home and began to think how close we had been to all the action, we really got scared and also realized what crazy nuts we were. Next time we'll stay at home.

During the rest of that week I was excused from my regular work in town and helped out in Wahiawa with the Civilian Defense organization. There was no school, of course, and Eleanor busied herself with Red Cross duties. She had already completed her course and was qualified as a Nurse's Aide. Everything is much quieter now, and life is almost back to normal, except for the night life. We have blackout every night and have already got accustomed to it. Our house is completely blacked out except for one room, so we don't have to go to bed at sunfall as we did the first few nights.

We had a very nice Christmas in town with the family and finished up by staying both Wednesday and Thursday nights with them. The kids had a grand time.

My very best Aloha to all of you, and remember that although our letter writing is practically non-existent, we think of you a lot and often.

Love,
Callum

My cousin Charlotte's account. She was ten years old at the time:

As I awoke on this Sunday morning, I could tell from the murmurs coming from my parents' bedroom that something different was happening. I went in there to see them sitting up in bed looking out the windows toward the Waianae Mountains and Kolekole Pass. In the distance was huge column of smoke and there were little silver things circling around the smoke and diving into it. My dad said that the army had been having maneuvers that weekend and it looked like something was on fire, perhaps in the gulch behind Wheeler Field. He said, "Let's go see what's happening." So off we drove down the hill from our house on Karsten Drive, Wahiawa, Oahu, Territory of Hawaii. It was December 7, 1941.

My mother was in the front seat with my father while my dog Tippy and I were in the back. We got to Wheeler Air Field where the Army was in the process of constructing a series of outdoor hangars, simply three dirt walls to form a "U." At this time there was only piles of dirt so we stopped between two piles and looked at Wheeler. To our right the hangars were on fire, and straight ahead on the ground were lines of airplanes also on fire. Above that was the column of smoke and there were planes circling and diving down. We were horrified! 


My dad thought that someone had a horrible mistake and instead of bombing the gulch behind the airfield, had missed and hit the real field. While we were watching and listening, we heard booming sounds coming from the direction of Honolulu so we continued down the road through Kipapa Gulch and up to where we could look over Ewa and Pearl Harbor. There were huge columns of smoke billowing up from Pearl and lots of silver things in the air. I remember dad's saying that perhaps someone mistakenly hit one or more of the oil tanks that lined the Honolulu side of the harbor.

At that point mother reminded dad that we're having company around noon (a Navy commander!) so we had better get right to the store and back home. Returning to Wahiawa we stopped at our usual Japanese grocery store, there to be told that the island was being bombed and attacked by the Japanese. Just as that was sinking in, we heard the noise of a plane out in the street. Everyone rushed out and saw a plane headed our way (north to south, or from right to left facing the street). 


We heard something zing past so we all automatically ran back into the store and dropped down on the floor behind the shelves. We heard the whine and zing of bullets (just like the movies!) as the plane came low and strafed (a word that later came into my vocabulary) the street. I was in time to see the plane start to bank right toward Wheeler Field and then nose dive down and crash. I will never forget that and the sight of the big red suns painted on the wings. Subsequently we learned that a guard at the water reservation---one person who had both a gun and ammunition---got a lucky shot and hit the pilot as he was flying low.


US Air Force photo

After seeing and experiencing all that and after hearing a radio message at the store (our first radio contact) to remain at home, we decided to return to the house!


When we got home, we turned on our radio and heard, "This is the real McCoy. The Japanese are attacking Oahu. Stay at home!" We were also instructed to boil our drinking water and not show any lights at night. Dad spent the rest of the day blacking out (another new phrase!) the essential room---the bathroom! The only other vivid memory of that day was when I had to go to bed. I spent a long time looking out the window wondering if the Japs were coming back and if I would ever wake up if I allowed myself to go to sleep.


The Japs did not come back, but nobody knew from moment to moment if they would or would not attack again. Schools were closed, and people were asked to stay at home until further notice. We heard that the Army was going to take over Leilehua School since was separated from Wheeler Field by only a wire fence, so mom went to get her records and as much athletic equipment as she could salvage. While she was doing that, I picked up used 50 caliber machine gun parts and made myself an 8-inch machine gun belt. I also picked up two bullets in my classroom.


Dad was asked to patrol the neighborhood, which was rather scary, as we lived near an Army reservation. The soldiers had guns, but Dad didn't. Klaxon air raid sirens were installed in a relay system from Wahiawa proper, and another of Dad's duties eventually was to crank the klaxon when he heard the one below.


Schools were closed until further notice, so we more or less stayed home. We spent many evenings with our bachelor neighbor who would buy food and ask Mother to cook for us all. We would eat early in his large, glassed-in garage and then go inside his NOT blacked-out living room to listen to the short wave radio broadcasts of Tokyo Rose. I remember one of the first broadcasts said that the Pacific Fleet was at the bottom of the ocean. We had been by Pearl Harbor by then and knew for a fact that was not true despite the tremendous loss of life and extensive damage.


Christmas of 1941 there were very few Christmas trees, and those available were too expensive, so Dad bored holes in a wooden dowel and stuck ironwood branches into it. Mom said it was the most symmetrical she's ever had!


Early in 1942, we were all registered, fingerprinted, given shots, and issued gas masks. When school was to start again in February, Leilehua classes were farmed out all over the area in private homes and in huts in the pineapple fields. It was decided that I would go into Honolulu to stay with my grandparents during the week and to to Punahou School. The U.S. Engineers had taken over the Punahou campus, so my 5th grade class was at Manoa Elementary, and the 6th grade was at the Teachers' College on the University of Hawaii campus. Both were in walking distance, of course, as gas, tires, and liquor were rationed (another new word!). However, shortages and high prices effectively rationed many other items.


We had many air raid scares, but nothing ever came of them. My uncle dug an air raid shelter in his backyard, and there was a large shelter behind my grandparents' house to be shared by three families. Dad refused to dig one. He said air raids were usually at night, and he's rather stay in his comfortable bed than go into a dirt shelter with spiders, centipedes, and scorpions.


One kind of funny thing that happened early in 1942 was that the volcano on the Big Island erupted. No one was allowed to show a light after dark under penalty of a stiff fine, but someone neglected to tell Pele! One could read a newspaper outside from the glow from the volcano!

Another amusing incident I remember was seeing an ammunition truck going through Wahiawa one day with a soldier sitting on top singing "I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire"!

Since we lived "in the country," Mom and Dad decided it would be a good idea if I learned to operate our car. I was only 10, but I was five feet tall and had no problem reaching the pedals. After that I'm sure we had the cleanest car on the island, as I offered to wash it so I could back it out! We had a long driveway, so I'd back the car all the way to the road and then bring it forward to wash. Afterward, I'd back it all the way out and then drive it forward into the carport!

Besides the blackout every night, having to be careful of gasoline, and having to carry gas masks everywhere, other overt signs of war were gun emplacements on the hills and barbed wire at Waikiki. The latter seemed quite ridiculous, even to us youngsters, since we knew there was no break in the reef offshore, and no one with any sense would try to cross the reef.

In February 1942, school began again, and, besides being in odd locations, wasn't much different. We had to carry our gas masks, and instead of fire drills, we had air raid drills when we would have to go into bomb shelters for a length of time. In 6th grade we had Victory Gardens where we grew carrots, radishes, onions, and lettuce under the tutilage of our Japanese gardener!

Almost half the population of Oahu was Japanese, but they were not treated the way they were on the West Coast. Officials removed certain ones whom they had targeted as "enemies," but the rest carried on in their usual or even war effort jobs. We continued to work and be friendly with the Japanese we had always known. We school children had the Japanese separated into two separate races: our country was fighting the "dirty Japs," but we were friends of Japanese!

At the end of 1942, Dad was offered a promotion if we moved to the San Francisco area. We had a lot of arrangements to make. Tippy, our Springer Spaniel, had to travel on a special animal convoy that was only available every six months. We had to estimate the closest one to our departure, which was not exactly booked to the day! Tippy had to have a special dog house and three week's rations! She left sometime in April and arrangements were made for her to be housed with a vet in San Francisco.

We sold the house and since Dad worked for the government, the Army came to pack us. Mother and Dad moved in with my uncle and aunt, and we were on 24-hour call to leave. One day in May when I got home from school, Mom and Dad said, "That was your last day of school. We leave tomorrow." I couldn't even call my friends to say goodbye.

Mom and Dad had taken our luggage to the pier, and we were to appear the next morning to leave. This was about the 15th or 16th of May, 1943. We got to the dock and got our cabin assignment. Dad was classified as an Army officer so we were lucky. We had a stateroom---a two-bunk room with a third bunk shoved in so no one could sit up in bed. But we had our own room with a wash basin. One drawback was that the ship was the former German ship, Orinocco, taken over in the Canal Zone, refitted as an Army transport and renamed the "U.S.A.T. Pueblo." However, everything was still written in German---the water faucets, showers, restrooms, etc. It was very interesting! We had to carry our life preservers every time we left the cabin. However, we were fortunate to meet a couple of the ship's engineers who played pinochle with us and who got us nice kapok ones. They made sitting on the bare deck a bit more comfortable.

We were in a convoy of four or five ships, plus two destroyer escorts. The usual 4 1/2 day trip took 9 days, zig-zagging every 15 to 20 minutes! The ships had target practice the first day out and later we had a sub scare. Then one  day a shell-shocked victim jumped overboard. We had a lot of casualties aboard as well as civilians.The ship could not stop---too dangerous---but we did circle back, a feat that took the better part of an hour at our speed. One of the destroyers came back at full speed, but all was in vain.

I'll never forget the cheers as we steamed under the Golden Gate Bridge. It gave everyone goose bumps. We landed at Fort Mason on May 25, 1943, and went to the Hotel Californian. I remember looking out at San Francisco's "dim out" from our hotel room and remarking how wonderful it was to see lights again!

(Charlotte Anderson retired in 1989 after teaching at Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa for 31 years. A native of Hawaii, she was a U.C. Berkeley graduate. She was a member of the Healdsburg Museum and Historical Society and the California Teachers' Association.)

See also The Town That Forgot About Its Japanese Internment Camp.

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2 Comments:

At 10:41 PM, Anonymous jw2200 said...

Thank you for publishing this. Soon all those who experienced these events first hand will be gone and it's up to us following generations to remember and learn.

 
At 1:25 PM, Blogger Rob Anderson said...

Not clear what the lesson is, but maybe it's just that, like the lesson of the 9/11 attack, the US always has enemies that might attack. What's striking is the astonishment of my uncle and aunt, who at first couldn't believe that it was an actual attack and not some kind of mistake.

 

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