Thursday, December 8, 2011

Remember Pearl Harbor

December 7 is almost over, but I have been thinking all day that I would have to do a post tonight about Pearl Harbor. It's been 70 years, but some things you just don't forget.

I was eight. When my parents moved to Honolulu because my father's ship was stationed there, I had to stay behind with Bam Bam and Aunt Quail in Berkeley. I had to stay behind for nearly a year, until my orthodontist could safely pass me on to an orthodontist in Honolulu to continue the work already started on my misshapen bite. As soon as my mouth was ready, I was sent off  in style to join my parents, as a first-class passenger on the Matsonia--in those days, a real luxury liner. I was watched over by a rather stern stewardess, but I still managed to make the acquaintance of a young army lieutenant who escorted me to the nightly movies (with the stewardess' permission, of course).

This was November of 1941. I got settled in school (st. Andrews' Academy, an Episcopal school) and met the new orthodontist, and discovered the joys of living near the beach in Honolulu. We lived in a place my mother nicknamed "Dewey Dumps"--it was really Dewey Court--a series of rather modest bungalows sandwiched between the Niu Malu Hotel and an Army fort. I was in the 4th grade, thanks to Miss Olive Ferguson, who had noted my complete boredom in her third-grade class and had me promoted at mid-year, skipping the last half of the third grade. So I had been in the 4th grade for one term already--we called them Low and High back then, so I was in the High 4th. But at St. Andrews, a 4th-grader was expected to know the times table from 1 through 12, and in Berkeley, that had not been a requirement. I would be allowed to stay in the 4th grade only if I learned the times tables over the weekend. Luckily, my father was home evenings and weekends, (though he went to sea soon afterwards) so he drilled me and drilled me until I could do it. So I got to stay in Miss Akai's 4th grade class. For about three weeks.

This is Mr. Lewis' Fourth Grade class at Whittier Elementary School, Berkeley, California,  in 1941. Eight-year-old  Nancy is in the second row from the top. third from the right.

On December 7, a Sunday, I got up to go to Sunday School. Mother and I were all ready, and we were driving a neighbor child, Jane Douglas, as well. Mother picked up the phone to call her family to tell them we were ready to leave, and found it dead. Or deathly silent, anyhow. There was an operator to make the connections in those days, and Mother could her the breathing, so she shouted into the phone that it was an emergency, and was connected right away to Jane Douglas' house. That was how she found out the Japanese were attacking Pearl Harbor: another neighbor's husband had been called from his bed to return to his ship, and she had run over to tell Jane Douglas' mother. who told my mother. We would never have known, otherwise--we had seen planes bouncing around in the sky, but that had been happening for about six weeks or so, every Sunday, so we thought nothing of it.

Nancy in 1941 in Dewey Court, Honolulu

Other things began to happen in Dewey Court. The policemen who lived across from us had been called to duty, too, so they were dashing off to the station. Nothing was going on in the fort next door, as far as we knew--not a gun went off, there. But some of the women, mostly Navy wives, were gathering at Jane Douglas' house to talk about the situation and what they would do. Jane Douglas' father was at sea, too. We had no idea what, if anything, the Japanese had done about those ships. As the morning wore on, we began to find out more. The radio broadcast some information, and the grapevine provided some, too.

Nancy in early 1942

Some of the women opted to take their children and seek refuge with friends in the hills above Honolulu--my mother wasn't one of them. She opined that if the Japanese invaded, it would only be a matter of time until they got to the hills, so why bother. Jane Douglas' mother wanted to go to the hills, too, but my mother talked her out of it, and as Evie (Jane Douglas' mother) was terrified, we gathered up a few things and went to spend the night at their cottage. By then we had learned that we were not to have any lights on after dark, so Mother and Evie found some cardboard somewhere and used it to cover the windows in the master bedroom, so there could be one room with lights. Later, after supper, everyone gathered on and around the steps at Evie's, to listen to the radio and keep each other company. When it got time for the kids to go to bed, Jane Douglas and I went into the house, and Mother and Evie soon followed.

Around ten o'clock there was a knock on the door. Evie was afraid to answer it, but Mother wasn't, so she went to see who it was. It turned out to be two young Marines, who had been sent to patrol the street, and who were knocking on doors to let people know they were there. They looked terribly dirty and bedraggled, very unlike the Marines we were used to seeing. Marines have always been spit-and-polish proud of their appearance. Mother inquired about this, and was told that the two of them had been on the Arizona, and had swum to shore through burning oil when she was sunk. As they weren't hurt, they were immediately sent off to patrol our street. Mother took the situation in hand: she corralled uniform parts from various husband's wardrobes--Navy officer's khakis were as close as she could come, but at least were clean. She sent the young men to the shower, and gave them the clean uniforms to wear. They didn't fit, exactly, but they were clean, and the young Marines were grateful to be clean and neat once more--except for the shoes. They had to wear their own shoes, as no on else's fit--but they had clean socks. One of them was 17, and had lied about his age to get into the Marines; the other was 19. I think of them every time December 7 rolls around. Even at 8 I understood something terrible had happened to them, and yet they were proud to be able to help keep us safe that night.

Mother insisted they eat something before continuing their patrol, and when she sent them on their way, she asked if they were all right. "Oh, yes, Ma'am," was the reply, "we're Marines!"

Luckily, both Jane Douglas' and my father were in a convoy halfway between Pearl Harbor and Wake Island when the Japanese attacked both places; the convoy escaped the notice of the enemy, and so returned to Pearl Harbor intact.

School had been cancelled while bomb shelters were dug, and didn't reopen until mid-January. Everyone was issued a gas mask, but there were no child-sized ones, so Mother had to make one from a washcloth, a Lucky Strike cigarette can, and some chemicals the cloth was soaked in to make a mask to breathe through. Eventually, we kids got real gas masks.The price of bread jumped from ten cents to twenty-five cents a loaf, and we wondered if there would be Christmas trees. The Sears, Roebuck store had a wonderful display of lighted figures climbing palm trees (of course the lights went out as soon as it got dark). We made a blackout room out of my parents' bedroom, and folks continued to gather around the steps of Evie's house to listen to the radio after dinner. The cops across the street sometimes sat out on their porch and played guitar and sang. The beach was fine, once you got through the barbed wire. Gas was rationed, and meat and sugar and shoes, but we managed to survive. Mother's cousin, a construction worker at Pearl Harbor, was killed in the bombing, and she got his car--a Plymouth coupe. It had 127 bullet holes in it, none of them hitting a vital spot.

Yes, that's a gas mask. Surplus World War I, as it happens, but handy for the beginning of WWII

Mother and I stayed in Honolulu until August of 1942; when my father was re-assigned from Executive Officer of the USS Hopkins, a destroyer, to become Navigator of the USS Salt Lake City, a cruiser whose home port was San Francisco, we came back to live with Bam Bam and Aunt Quail in Berkeley.

Coming home on a troop ship. We had to wear the life vests all the time.

The trip home took 19 days, zig-zagging in a convoy across the Pacific (for comparison, it had taken the Matsonia five days to make the trip to Honolulu). When we landed in San Francisco at last, Mother called Bam Bam from a pay phone on the dock.
"Hello, Hannah," said my mother, "what are you having for dinner?"
"Pork chops," said Bam Bam.
"Can you feed two more?" asked Mother.
"Of course, Dear. Who is it?"

We took the train to Berkeley where Aunt Quail met us and drove us up the hill to her new house, completed just before the war. And there we stayed, for four years, until Father came back to run the Naval Training Center in San Francisco and we bought a house in Berkeley, where we lived until 1946, when we went to Guam.

Nancy in 1943, wearing Dad's cap

But that's a story for another day. Remember Pearl Harbor--Nan

1 comment:

  1. I've never read the memories of citizens who lived through Pearl Harbor, so I thank you for sharing. I particularly liked the part about feeding and clothing the Marines. What amazing bitter-sweet memories.