What Pearl Harbor cost my family
What Pearl Harbor cost my family
As you know today, December 7th, is Pearl Harbor Day. It is “A day that will live in infamy” as then President Franklin D. Roosevelt put is famously in his speech to the country describing the attack that sank the USS Arizona, California and Utah. That attack cost our nation gravely in the 1, 076, 245 men and women that we lost, or who were injured after we entered the war. World War II cost our nation dearly and it was no different for my family. The impact it had was lasting in so many unique ways.
My grandparents were stationed at Fort Shafter on Oahu when the attack happened, but my grandmother had been born and raised in Honolulu. My grandmother described what they heard that morning in an interview she did with my father prior to her death:
“On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941 we woke early to the sound of what we though were Naval guns at target practice, but were really bombs being dropped on Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field. We finally realized it couldn’t be target practice since the fleet was in the harbor. We turned on the radio which was broadcasting the attack. My husband hurriedly dressed in civilian clothes which were on the bedside chair (we had been to a beach party the night before) and took off for the Command Post where he proceeded to alert members of the 64th Coast Artillery to which he was assigned at the time. Most of the people he called were annoyed at being bothered on a Sunday morning and told him to go back to bed and leave them alone. I did not see him again for three days.”
As if it wasn’t rough enough to be an Army wife in these circumstances, add to that my father who was 15 months old at the time. In true fashion, my grandmother decided that just sitting at home with my father wouldn’t do. She packed a bag with my father’s clothes and toys and put some formula into a cooler, put him into his stroller and headed for the local shelter. She explained the scene on post at the time:
“Military Police were pounding on the doors telling everyone to get going. They even entered quarters to prod people who didn’t want to since military families must act “under orders” as well as their husbands under certain circumstances.”
When she reached the shelter she was greeted with a less than homey scene since the shelter was in an unfinished storage tunnel which was cold and dank. Families were assigned space as those in command attempted to bring some kind of order out of the chaos which was-as you can imagine dear reader-all but impossible.
“Crying babies, hysterical women did not help as many came in barefoot and wearing night clothes, not bringing anything useful along. One woman brought her husbands loaded revolver which she did not know how to use which was soon taken away from her. Another brought a manicure set and spent all day doing her nails. Cots were brought in and a maternity ward was set up-just in case.”
She and my father spent a week in these conditions and were allowed to leave the shelter during the first week after the attack but were required to return at night. Eventually when supplies became difficult to come by and food was becoming so scarce that young men would bring bags of onions to dates instead of flowers, she and my father were forced to evacuate to the mainland in March of 1942. Even though she was from Honolulu, because she and my father were military dependents they were ordered to leave for the States. She had 18 hours notice to collect essential records and packed all she could into a footlocker and reported with my father to the USS President McKinley, a Navy ship with no safety rails or nets to keep small children from falling overboard. She was actually told by a Naval officer that if my father fell off the boat they could not stop to recover him due to the presence of Japanese submarines in the area. A cruiser escorted them all the way to San Francisco and a destroyer went halfway with them only to be relieved by another destroyer sent from San Francisco to bring them into port. The journey usually took 10 days but they made it in five since the McKinley was being turned into a troopship.
When her car arrived three weeks later they drove to Davenport, Iowa where my grandmother had friends, to wait out the war and my grandfather’s return. My grandmother would never live on her island again and even though my father had been less than two years old at the time of the attack he suffered psychological stress none the less. During a trip to Toronto, Canada one year later when my father saw a bomber flying overhead he began crying hysterically. It struck my grandmother that until that happened she did not realize just how frightened she had been for that entire year.
The attack on Pearl Harbor took many things from my family. It took my grandmother away from her home for 20 years and robbed my father and his sisters of the opportunity to grow up in Hawaii, which also caused two generations of us to miss out on fully understanding our genetic connection to the islands. You see in the 1940’s on the mainland it was just as scandalous to be half Hawaiian as it was to be half black. As a result, my grandmother “passed” and denied her Hawaiian heritage until her dying day. It has only been recently that we were able to confirm that my grandmother, and my great-grandmother were in fact part Hawaiian. Because of this, my father and two aunts grew up not knowing their real heritage and I only learned of my familial connection to the islands I love so much in my adulthood.
So I choose to honor my family on this December 7th and ask that you honor the brave men and women who died on that fateful day, as well as those who were permanently displaced or scarred by it. Let us never forget the lasting effects of World War II on our nation and its people.