(Note: This story was first published Dec. 7, 2019 and is being reprinted in honor of Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, 2020.)
Earlier this week, Must Read Alaska asked readers to pause for a moment and call a relative or friend who is “getting up there” in years, and gather their account of their lives on Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Readers delivered! Here are their eyewitness accounts to history that happened 78 years ago:
JOYCE PORTE, LIVING IN AFRICA ON DEC. 7, 1941
I was just-turned five when I heard abut the bombing, a month after it happened, because we were living in Africa at the time. Our mail was delivered monthly from the nearest postal facility, by a runner with a packsack. My parents were missionaries along with about six others in a remote location. The mail was dumped on the floor and being sorted when someone picked up a letter and started to cry.
Soon everyone was bawling. Watching from the doorway, I wondered why someone would bomb a place where pearls were harvested. I was afraid they would come and confiscate my mother’s beautiful string of pearls.
I already knew about bombing because we lived in British territory and had instructions from the government abut what to do if bombing came our way from the North Africa Theater.
DPRINDA MAKANAONALANI NICHOLSON, HONOLULU
Pearl Harbor, Hawaii – My baby brother was asleep in his crib when the bombs started falling.
Meanwhile, in the front room, Mom twisted the wood knob on the big stand-up Philco radio to listen to KGMBʻs station whie she cooked breakast. She grabbed a roll of Portuguese sausage out of the icebox and sliced thick circles into the frying pan.
My dog, Hula Girl, thumped her tail, sniffed the air and hopped off my bed and trotted to the kitchen, with me right behind her. She gave Mom a pleading “feed me” look and waited, curled up next to the kerosene stove with her neck and muzzle across Momʻs barefoot toes.
“Hmm, the manuevers sound so real this morning,” Dad said as he filled his plate with two scoops of rice, eggs, and chunks of sausage.
Mom nodded, saying “the planes felt too darn close to the house and how unusual for the Army and Navy to practice drills on a Sunday morning,”
Thatʻs when the explosions ratted the plates and forks almost all the way off our yellow formica tabletop.
The roar of planes was too much for my Scots-Irish dad to ignore. He bolted up from the kitchen table and pushed past Mom. Sprinting to the screen door he shoved it open and raced down the front steps into the yard.
I was right behind him, squeezing through the door before it had a chance to bang shut.
We shielded our eyes from the low morning sun and looked up into orange-red circles painted on the wings of Japanese torpedo planes.
The planes were so low and loud, Dad had to shout, he was scared they would hit the top of our house.
One plane flew just barely above our treetops and tipped his wings. Since his overhead canopy was pushed back and open, I saw the pilotʻs face with round goggles anchored to his forehead.
The fighter plane slid quickly into its final descent and headed for unsuspecting American ships filled with sleeping sailors, just a few hundred yards from our house.
Our family hid in nearby sugar cane fields shielding ourselves from the attacking bombers. At dusk, I wanted to go home and see if Hula Girl, my poi-dog was okay. But martial law was in place, we were not going home, but being evacuated to a sugar plantation, where we slept in the community center on cold hard floors.
Blackouts began that night over all the islands, the only visible light escaping from the torches of burning oil and orange-red flames of crippled ships burning bright in the Harbor. One of the smoldering ships, was the West Virginia, collapsed on the mud floor of the harbor, ravaged by torpedos.
Surviving the sinking of the battleship, West Virginia, was 19-year-old Master Sergeant Richard Fiske, who had abandonded ship per Captain Bennionʻs orders.The face of the Japanese pilot haunted Richard that night and every night, and fueled his hatred of all things Japanese. He was pleased to be sent to fight on Iwo Jima.
Richard and I would meet decades later and remain friends forever because of the gift he gave me, his story. The story of how hatred can become frienship between bitter enemies, eventually. His friendship story was an example of how the Power of Love can overcome the Love of Power.
His veteranʻs story became the book, Pearl Harbor Warriors, The Bugler, The Pilot, The Friendship. After it was named to the Missouri Mark Twain book List, and the DVD, named best DVD by the American Library Association, I joined the Missouri Humanities Council Speakerʻs Bureau and shared WWII history across our state.
Years earlier, I came to Missouri to attend college and to meet my fatherʻs family for the firsst time. At college, I met a really cute guy from Missouri and settled here. Perhaps, because of the trauma of surviving a bombing at ground zero, is one reason I chose to earn a psychology degree.
That therapy license provided a day job to allow me to be continue to be an author of WWII history from primary resources, and as a speaker, especially in schools.
When speaking in schools, I love to ask students to guess which country am I from?
“I carried a gas mask wth me everywhere, I could not leave my house after dark, I carried invasion currency, my school playground had bomb shelters, I had air-raid drills at school, we painted our windows black so no light could show at night, there was a shortage of food, all mail was censored…….What country am I from?”
And after many guesses, I tell them this is their own American history and
what happened in WWII, especially through the eyes of children. I then ask them to write their own stories.
I always end with the story of Richard Fiske and his eventual friendship with Japanese bomber pilot, Zenji Abe. Two former enemies becoming sincere friends and the example they are today in our lives, of overcoming hatred, bullying, and prejudice.
“The Pear Harbor Child” www.dorindanicholson.com
GEORGE WUERCH, ANCHORAGE
Tacoma, Washington – I was 6 years old Dec 7, 1941 and remember clearly being in the kitchen that Sunday morning as the radio interrupted normal broadcast with news of Japanese bombing PearlHarbor. My father, an electrical engineer had recently been hired by the new government owned aluminum smelter in my hometown of Tacoma, Washington. As the plant engineer he was quickly declared essential defense personnel so my brother and I had an at-home father throughout WW-II. We were privileged in that regard but rationing and low salaries motivated Dad to plant a big Victory garden so we ate pretty well.
I spent those years making balsa wood models of war planes and listening to after school radio programs for kids. Today at age 84 I look back on those days as good times. …. George Wuerch, LtCol, US Marines (retired) and former Mayor of Anchorage.
MERCEDES PRESCOTT ANGERMAN, WRANGELL
Wrangell, Alaska: Born on December 7, 1937, my mother, Mercedes Prescott was 4 years old on that day. Living on Wrangell Island, where she still resides today, the news wasn’t as immediate; however, once it hit the town, it traveled fast. Although my mother doesn’t remember a lot of that specific day, she certainly vividly recalls the days that followed during the war.
One thing that is solid from her 4 year old mind, is the day her mother received a telegram. Her mother, Edith Prescott, worked for the weather service on the island. She received a telegram asking her to move to Hawaii to work. It traumatized her son, Mitchell, to the extent he hid the telegram in a small hole in the wall of the family home. The thought of her leaving terrified him. She ultimately didn’t accept the work offer in Hawaii. And many years later, the telegram was found in the wall during a remodel.
Her father, Ralph, served on the island as an Air Raid Warden after the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor. When the sirens rang, he donned his hardhat and patrolled the streets. The siren signaled everyone on the island to turn off their lights and place blankets over windows to hide any internal fire/stove flickering.
My mother is currently here in Anchorage, visiting me so this is perfect timing for some reminiscing. She notes that everyone was patriotic during that time. Even the children would wear junior WACS and WAVES uniforms to school. The picture attached shows my mother, Mercedes Prescott (now Angerman, far right), her cousin Marlene Messinger (now Clark) in the middle, and friend, Alora Petticrew (Gunderson -left). Alora has passed but Mercedes and Marlene are still alive and well.
BOB TRIPP, JUNEAU
I am 81 years old and remember very distinctly what happened when we got the news. I was 6 days shy of my 4th birthday so I was a sentient human being on 7 December 1941.
The reason I distinctly remember the event is because of the impact on my parents that Sunday. My father was an Army captain and a USMA graduate class of 1933 stationed at West Point as a physics instructor to West Point cadets at that time. His roommate at the Point had graduated into the Coast Artillery branch of the service and was stationed in the Philippines on Corregidor.
By that time the winds of war had given every indication that if war with Japan broke out, the Philippines would be Japan’s first target. My parents agonized over what that meant. Predictably he was soon captured. We learned later that he survived the Bataan death march but not captivity.
His roommate had married my mother’s sister so in addition of being father’s cadet roommate and close friend he was also my uncle. Our two families were very close so December 7 was a traumatic day in our family.
In short order my father was sent overseas and my mother and I became war Gypsies traveling from relatives to relatives as we owned no home of our own. In those days, most military personnel did not own houses and lived in military housing.
BOB ADAMS, JUNEAU
Juneau, Alaska – As I was a 5-year-old, I don’t remember the actual attack, but living in Juneau I do remember vividly the “tar paper” on the windows, the “blackouts” when practice for an attack on Juneau would require all lights to be off. Also remember the Air Raid Wardens who stopped at each house to check on covered windows, and lights out during practice, etc.
DICK MACKEY, WASILLA
I was nine years old, listening to the “Shadow” on the radio that Sunday afternoon. The program stopped for a news headline that the Japs had bombed Pearl Harbor. I knew something was bad but did not realize the impact it really was on our country. I ran out to the back yard to tell my parents. The next morning my Dad was in line to sign up!
MARLYS BURNETT, BEND, OREGON
Bend, Oregon : Marlys was a 12-year-old child in Bend. Her father, Bob Prentice, was a minister at the Presbyterian church and he and his wife Doris were at the church for their pastoral duties on Dec. 7, 1941, a Sunday, while Marlys was sick at home.
At about noon, Marlys turned on the radio, tuned to the only station they had — KBND — and heard news of the attack crackle through the tubes. “I was laying in my bed and I was horrified. I was scared. When I heard my parents’ car pulling into the driveway, I leaned over the banister looking straight down the steps and shouted: ‘The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor!'” That’s how my parents heard the news.
“I didn’t say Japs — we were trained not to say things like that. Then the downstairs radio went on and we never left the radio that day. The president’s voice — I won’t forget when he came on the radio and said ‘We are at war.'”
“It drained our little town of all the young dads and lads overnight to create a big Army and Air Force. One of the members of the church — my father’s best friend and hunting buddy — signed up right away, and was killed in action, and so was my piano teacher’s son. The church was packed on Dec. 14, as people came to hear what my dad, the preacher, had to say.”
My mother, born in England, was 11. She spoke more about listening to Winston Churchill’s speeches on the radio, as well as spending time in bomb shelters, memories of food and other supply rationing, along with air raid sirens and blackouts.
British war humor was a resilient spinoff of coping with life in an active war zone. Contacting bomb squads to dig unexploded ordnance out of “gardens” (British for “back yard”) was part of day to day life.
She did not state any direct memories of the Pearl Harbor bombing. I suspect as an 11-year-old girl living in an active war zone, the U.S. news may not have been her prime interest.
My father is no longer with us, but he either never spoke of the Pearl Harbor attack, or I never paid attention. He was, during the war, one of those men who switched from the U.S. Army to the U.S. Air Force at its inception. He was, for a time, stationed at Hickham Field as a master sergeant working as a ground flight crew chief. He later was stationed in England where he and my mother were married then moved with the Air Force to the States, where Mom studied and took the test to become a legal U.S. citizen.
DAVE HARBOUR, ANCHORAGE
Dad and Mom, Col. and Mrs. Dave Harbour, share a peaceful space under a huge, 150-year-old tropical shade tree above Honolulu at Punchbowl National Cemetery of the Pacific. Their remains rest where their relationship began 71 years ago.
On December 6, 1941, my fighter pilot dad, then a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps, had taken an English-Latin teacher, an Eastern Pennsylvania farm girl, out on a date. Everyone called her, “Bobbie”, though her given name was Selma.
While Mom and Dad were a little sketchy about the details, I do know that early Saturday morning, December 7, Dad had dropped Mom off at her place and was returning to his base when all hell broke loose.
He hurried to the airfield where his fighter and many others were already being strafed and bombed by Japanese Zeros.
Failing to get a plane in the air, he did the only thing he could, take cover and try to place round after round from his .45 semi-automatic pistol through metal and flesh of the alien aircraft as they made pass after pass over the airfield.
Mom and Dad shared special moments together in the hectic days following that day of infamy until he received orders shipping him out to New Guinea. There he would patrol the seaways to intercept, engage and destroy, enemy ships and planes.
Before Dad left, he and Mom were married. Dad then left Oahu for his new assignment and would get his start as a famous outdoor writer, later producing several books and writing hundreds of articles for outdoor publications like Sports Afield…and assisting in the foundation of the American Wild Turkey Federation. He got that start by learning to write action stories for ‘pulp war magazines’ during the unpredictable moments of tense leisure between combat missions in New Guinea.
The Army shipped Mom back to Coleman, Texas to stay with Dad’s folks until he was reassigned to the Continential United States (CONUS). I was born a Texan, about nine months after those perilous Pearl Harbor days–on September 4, 1942.
I think that one of the reasons Dad did so well in combat and in a distinguished Air Force career, was his motivation to protect the country for his new family.
I remember sharing that feeling when as a 2nd Lieutenant, I shipped off years later to Korea. The hugs and smiles Dad and Mom and I shared at that parting seemed to transmit from one generation to the next the love of God, country, and family and the determination to protect our way of life. And, what Mom and Dad’s generation protected has provided a wonderful way of life, cultivated in the fertile land of freedom.
On this day my reflection and prayer is that our children will inherit and keep the same freedom and way of life we inherited from our parents. When those in power have boldly stated they want to ‘fundamentally change the United States,’ it makes me cringe and wonder if I would feel as inclined to volunteer for military service now as I did in 1966. I knew what values I was protecting then. Today, I join many others in being somewhat confused and fearful as to what our country now stands for and is evolving into.
So, today I pray for clarity. I pray that our country’s values for this generation will be as worth protecting as they were when Dad and Mom faced the horror of war head on, and when I served.
I pray this moment for our Nation, knowing that the ONLY reason we have been enabled to succeed is that we have followed our founders’ respect for, devotion to and love of God, His Savior son and His guidance.
I pray for those now serving in uniform and those contemplating service.
I pray that we do not lose our love of God and and our Founders’ dream, lest we lose the values that have inspired generations of patriots, until now, to defend them with their lives and sacred honor.
OLE JORDAN’S FAMILY, ANCHORAGE
My mom was in Anchorage during WWII, they were worried the Japanese were going to come marching down the streets of Anchorage.
They were in the Aleutians, the U.S. didn’t do anything for a while. My grandfather was a WWI vet, he was ready for them.
I will ask her about Pearl Harbor. My brother-in-law’s dad was at Pearl Harbor that day, and I listened to that story every time I saw that man. I think it was a PTSD thing, that day never left the front of his mind. All you had to do is say one of 100 trigger words. Of course, I listened to every word and asked a question or two.
He died about 10 years ago. I would not mind hearing the story another 200 times. He spent that day helping wounded near the hospital.
My sister-in-law’s mother was a young lady at the time of the attack living on Oahu, Hawaii in Kaneohe. The story she told me was that her and her father we’re working on the roof of their house and she heard and then noticed planes, not recognizing the the markings, when she asked her father who they were, all he did was to take the family to a safe location.
Editor’s note: Thank you to everyone who sent in their stories. If you didn’t get to it in time for the compilation, please add your own family memories and comments below.