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Remembering Pearl Harbor

By Chuck Harris
Splasher Six Volume 32, Winter 2001, No. 4
Cindy Goodman, Editor

In the summer of 1941 the war clouds of the world were becoming darker by the day. In Europe, Hitler’s forces had overrun most of Europe, and the Luftwaffe was bombing London. Japan had invaded China. The peacetime draft in the U.S had begun, and the American Lend-Lease Act had been signed.

I arrived in Hawaii that summer and began work at Pearl Harbor as a Topographic Engineer in the Navy Public Works Department. On the trip to Hawaii aboard the Matson Liner “MATSONIA,” Harry Cronin, Cliff Lorne (both from Detroit) and I had become good friends and we decided to find an apartment in Honolulu.

Our office, with perhaps 50 Engineers and Architects, was on the second floor of a large administrative building, a couple of blocks from the docks. My supervisor in the Civil Engineering Section was Art Lambert. Art and I soon became close friends.

After about a week Art suggested that we grab a quick bite of lunch in the large cafeteria then take 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 was! 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 of the Navy’s greatest ships out of the water. Art had been working at Pearl for several years, and was very knowledgeable. The first time we walked past a cruiser, Art pointed up at the “bedsprings” high on the ship. He said it was very hush-hush: Radar. Later in the summer the SS Missouri, the Navy’s latest and largest battleship, pulled into port. As we walked toward the ship I looked up at those massive 16-inch gun turrets and was overwhelmed. Little did we envision that the surrender of Japan would take place on that deck.

I had been on the job perhaps a week when a small group of Naval Officers walked through our office on a so called “inspection.” One of them, with lots of gold braid, stopped at my desk and asked a couple of mundane questions, which I was able to answer. When they departed I asked the engineer on the table behind me: “Who were those guys?” In disbelief he answered: “Why the officer who talked with you was Admiral Bloch, the Commandant of the Navy Yard!” I quickly realized I’d better learn something about Navy rank and insignia.

Many interesting design projects were assigned. Toward the end of November I started the design of a steel net to be placed across the harbor entrance to stop a normal sized submarine.

Prior to leaving Boise, Idaho I had obtained my private pilot’s license under the Civilian Pilot Training Program. During the fall of ’41 I sometimes rented a small plane at John Rogers Airport (near Hickam Field) and would fly around the area for 30 minutes which was all I could afford. Bob Tyce, the manager of John Rogers, had checked me out prior to my first solo flight.


At noon on Friday, December 5, I called John Rogers to rent a plane on Sunday morning. The only time available was at 7:30 AM. After a few seconds I decided that 7:30 was too early for a Sunday morning. That decision not to rent a plane at 7:30 AM on Dec. 7 was perhaps the best in my life!

By this time Harry, Cliff and I were living in a duplex on Ohua Street in Waikiki, 3 blocks from the beach. I was fast asleep that Sunday morning (Dec. 7) when I heard Cliff say loudly: “Lady, you’ve been dreaming, go back to bed.” Then he ran back into the house and turned on the radio. The initial reports of the Pearl Harbor attack were being broadcast. We just couldn’t believe it, but were soon convinced. In addition to the raw report all military personnel were directed to report to their duty stations immediately.

We knew there were many military personnel in the large apartment building next to us, so we dressed quickly, ran over to the apartments and ran up and down the hallways banging on doors. We then ran to the beach to look across the waters to Pearl Harbor. Dense black clouds were billowing skyward. While we were debating what to do, a group of Japanese planes, in loose formation and flying quite low, flew past us headed for Diamond Head. According to Thurston Clarke’s Book Pearl Harbor Ghosts, the second phase of the attack took place at 0840; the planes we saw were probably that phase. We ran back to our house, jumped in Cliff’s Packard, and sped toward Pearl Harbor.

As we passed Hickam Field the view we had was nothing but tragic. The planes at Hickam had been lined up wing to wing in order to make it easier to guard against possible Japanese saboteurs. This presented the Japanese fliers with an ideal target: just fly down that row of planes and strafe/bomb the hell out of them. Many planes were burning and on their sides, especially the old B-18’s. We also saw extensive damage to Hickam buildings. From Pearl Harbor Ghosts: Three B-17’s, out of a group that had left Hamilton Field the prior evening, had flown through flak and enemy machine gun fire to land at Hickam. However, we didn’t see them. The balance landed at various fields on Oahu.

When we entered Pearl Harbor, the guards looked us over carefully, checked our ID’s and made certain we didn’t look Oriental. We were among the first to arrive at our office. Within the hour many more arrived, including Cmdr. Johnson and Lt. Lipp. After consultations we were told to return home, do what we could in the community, and to report back at 7AM the next morning. Much as we would like to have gone to the docks, we realized this wasn’t a day for sightseeing!

On our way home, the three of us went to Tripler Army Hospital and gave blood. It took all morning as there were so many doing the same. Among the radio announcements this day was the declaration of Martial Law for the Islands. This included nightly blackouts and a curfew during darkness.

Regarding my turning down the opportunity to rent a plane at 7:30 AM on the 7th, Pearl Harbor Ghosts states that there were five rented small planes in the air when the attack occurred at 7:55. Two, each with two army personnel aboard, were shot down over the Pacific. The other three planes had frightening experiences, but landed safely. At John Rogers, Bob Tyce was boarding a plane when he was killed by Japanese fighters strafing the airport. He is listed as the first civilian casualty of the attack. Over the years, when thinking of December 7, I have often wondered what my fate would have been had I rented that plane at 0730.

When we stopped at the Pearl Harbor gate early the next morning, Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, pulled up beside us in his staff car. We had a good look at him as he returned the guard’s salute. We all thought: “sure wouldn’t want to be in his shoes today.” Upon arriving at our office I was told that a 2-man midget submarine had been sunk in the Harbor the previous day, which meant that my design of the net must be changed to provide protection against these midgets. Back to the drawing boards!

Another change put us on a 10-hour, 7 day work schedule. Work at our office continued at a fast pace over the following months. Later that week, Art & I made our first trip to the docks since the attack. The Pennsylvania had departed leaving the Cassin and Downes in dry dock. Both destroyers were horribly mangled. Further on were the cruise Helena and the minelayer Oglala, the latter lying on its side. Looking across to Ford Island we could see the tragedy of our battleships. The Oklahoma was on her side, the keel showing. She was one of the seven battleships moored along Ford Island, perfect targets for the Japanese attackers. Further on we saw the battleship Arizona. The smoldering ship was on the bottom of the harbor, the mangled upper structure showing above the waterline. Other critically damaged battleships were the West Virginia and California.

During this 20 minute walk we saw most of the disaster inflicted on our ships. What we could not see, but knew was there, was the terrible human loss. The human and material damage cannot be equated.

Three aircraft carriers, the Lexington, Enterprise and Yorktown were stationed at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Had they been in the Harbor on December 7, one can only conjecture what would have happened to them. The Hornet arrived a few weeks later.

In August ’42, I received orders to report to Hickam Field for induction into the Army Air Forces as an Aviation Cadet, class of 43F. Thus began my military career, and ended a very interesting assignment at Pearl Harbor.