Charles E. “Chuck” Harris History
Colonel Charles E. Harris was at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The following is his recall of that “Day of Infamy” and his personal experiences leading up to World War II. Was there another 100th veteran at Pearl Harbor – how many of us even knew Chuck was there? ..pw
Since World War II, I have had numerous discussions with friends about the war and our various experiences. Usually these talks were confined to wartime service. On occasions I have mentioned that I was at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and have briefly shared my experiences leading to that historic day. Some have suggested that I put those events in writing. Now with my 84th birthday behind me, I have decided to write my story.
In June of 1939, I graduated from the University of Idaho in Civil Engineering and accepted a position with the Idaho Power Company in Boise, Idaho with a salary of $100 per month. (A good salary in those days) My assignments included field inventory of Power Company power lines, survey of potential power sites, and inspection of transmission line construction.
With the passage of the peacetime draft in August 1940, young men of my age knew that the draft was “breathing down our necks.”
Aviation had always been of interest to me. After the Civilian Pilot training Program was passed by Congress in 1940, I signed up for flying lessons at the Boise Airport, which later became Gowen Field. One the program requirements was that signess would volunteer for the Army Air Corps in case of a national emergency. In the spring of 1941, subsequent to morning flying lessons, I received my private flying license.
The construction firm of Morrison Knudsen Company, Inc. (MK) was headquartered in Boise and their Personnel Manager, Vern Otter, was a friend. MK became a partner in Pacific Naval Air Base Contractors, (PNAB) a large consortium designing and constructing defense installations in the Pacific Ocean area, including Hawaii, Wake and Johnson, and Midway Island.
In early 1941, Vern offered me a position as a topographic engineer with the Navy at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. I took it. Working in Hawaii sounded like a dream, and the salary of $225 per month was an unbelievable raise. By this time my salary at MK was $110. a month. Travel orders to Hawaii came through in early June 1941 for me to fly to San Francisco and then to board the Matson Line S.S. Matsonia for the trip to Honolulu. The Matsonia was one of two Matson Liner sailing to the Islands.
There were several new PNAB engineers and architects on this cruise. PNAB had reserved the Lanai Suites on the first class level. Each Lanai had a large veranda with windows looking out on the ocean. They were built for the wealthy. No portholes for us! In our case, seven or eight of slept on cots in the veranda. Upon awakening we folded the cots, set them on one side of the Lanai, and enjoyed the view. We dined in first class. During the cruise we struck up many lasting friendships. Several of our companions were going on to Wake or Johnson (Johnston) Islands. The remainder were assigned to Pearl Harbor. Harry Cronin, an Administration Engineer, and Clift Lorne, a Mechanical Engineer, both from Detroit, and I became good friends during the cruise; we would later live together in Honolulu.
The Navy Public Works Department, where we were assigned, was located on the second floor of a large administration building at Pearl Harbor, a couple of blocks from the docks. There were perhaps 50 engineers, architects and draftsmen in the Department, with Commander Johnson, CEC, as Office in Charge. It was a large office not unlike a conference room in present day hotel. The Administration Section was the front of the room facing the engineers and architects. In the design section were architects and civil, topographic, mechanical and electrical engineers, each with a drafting table or desk. My table was in the Civil Engineering section. My supervisor, Art Lambert, soon became a close friend, a friendship that lasted until death a few years ago.
An enterprising young architect and wife, Jim and Dale Stewart, both of whom and lived in Honolulu for several years, purchased large home in the Monoa Valley, one of the luxury sections of Honolulu, and setup a first class “boarding house” for a few Pearl Harbor employees. After looking around for a day or so, Harry, Cliff, and I rented rooms from the Stewarts. Breakfast and supper each day was provided. Cliff, whose family owned a large Plumbing and Heating Company in Detroit, bought a good used Packard sedan which became our means of transportation; Cliff did the driving, Harry and I bought the gas. A nice arrangement. In addition to getting us to the Harbor each say, we also did lots of island sightseeing. We all fell in love with Oahu, it’s beauty, gorgeous flowers, fragrances, and tropical climate. However, on occasions the humidity gets quite high and can be uncomfortable, particularly for those of us who came from dry climates like Idaho.
After perhaps a week at the office, Art Lambert suggested that he and I have a quick bite of lunch in the cafeteria and then got for a walk along the docks. Both of us had security clearances, so we could go essentially anywhere. For a landlubber , like me, what an education that became! Learning the difference between a destroyer and a battleship was one of my first lessons. Particularly fascinating was walking along the dry docks and seeing some the Navy’s greatest ships out of the water. Art had been working at the Navy Yard for several years and was very knowledgeable of the Navy Yard. I remember the first time we walked alongside of a cruiser and Art pointed up at he “bed springs” mounted high on the ship. He said it was very hush-hush, the latest in radio technology – radar. Later in the summer the newest battleship in the Navy, the U.S.S Missouri pulled into port. As we walked toward the Missouri I looked up at those massive 16-inch guns turrets; I was overwhelmed. We took our time as we walked the length of that massive man-of-war. little did we envision that some four years later the surrender of Japan to the United States would be signed on the deck of the Missouri.
I have been on the job a week or so when a small group of Naval Officer came through our deign section on an “inspection.” One of the Officers, with lots of gold braid, happened to stop at my table and asked a couple of mundane questions, which I was able to answer. When they departed, I turned the engineer on the table behind me and asked, “Who were those guys? In disbelief he replied, “Why that was Admiral Bloch who stopped and talked to you. He’s the Commandant of the Navy yard.” I quickly realized that I’d better brush up on Naval ranks and insignia!
Several interesting design projects were assigned to me over the ensuing months. It was fascinating and challenging place to work. All of watch the news and the4 ever-increasing tensions with Japan and her invasions of other Asian countries.
After a few weeks at the Stewart’s. we became rather dissatisfied with the food as well as the relative isolation of Manoa Valley. We found a nice little home on Oahu Avenue in Waikiki.It gave us more independence and access to the many restaurants and stores in the area. And, of course the beach, which was three blocks away. Harry, at one time in his career a chef, was glad to do the cooking for us. And the food was great. Cliff and I did the dishes and kept the place tidy. Yes, we actually did!
During the fall of ’41, I sometimes rented a small plane on Sunday mornings at John Rogers Municipal Airport and would fly around the local area for a half hour, all I could afford. John Rogers was adjacent to Hickam Field, the primary Army Air Force field in the Pacific. The highway from Honolulu to the Harbor runs past Hickam, and on our way to a from Pearl each day we observed the various military planes on the field.
Bob Tice, the manager of flying service at John Rogers, checked me out as a pilot prior to my renting a plane for the first time. It was fun to fly out over the Pacific, circle around the city past Diamond Head, and then back to Rogers for a landing. In October. Cliff decided he wanted to fly with me one Sunday. I dare say he was gritting his teeth during this adventure, but we had a nice flight and even said he’d like to do it again sometime. What we of course didn’t envision was the pending war.
During the last week of November 1941, the design of an anti-submarine net to extend across the entrance to Pearl Harbor was assigned to me. It would be made of steel cables crisscrossed to catch the normal sized submarine and was given a high priority. The project was completely different from anything I had ever attempted.