Today is the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and with each passing year there are fewer and fewer people alive who experienced the event that brought the United States into World War II. I had the rare opportunity to meet someone who saw it all. She only talked to me for a few minutes and there were a million questions I didn’t get to ask her, but as soon as I got home I wrote down everything she told me so I wouldn’t forget it.
In November 1999 I was browsing at antique mall in Sacramento and spotted some View-Master reels in a display case. I asked a clerk – her name was Audrey – to bring them out so I could take a look at them. One was a 1950s reel of Hawaiian hula dancers. Audrey casually mentioned that Hawaii was so different now than the way it was when she’d been there. I figured she’d vacationed there in the ’50s or ’60s, so I asked her what it had been like then.
“Oh, no, I was there before the war, before it was so built up” she said.
“But you got out before Pearl Harbor was bombed, right?” I asked.
“No, I was right there,” she said. Then she started talking.
Audrey’s father was a civilian employee at Hickam Field, the Air Force base on Pearl Harbor. The family lived in the third block of military housing from the street. On the morning of December 7th, there was a tremendous noise and the ground began to shake. Audrey – and everybody else – looked up and discovered they were being strafed by Japanese planes. She ran home, but as she ran she saw bombs dropping everywhere. Nearly six decades later she could still remember the smell of the dead bodies, and how they were left to rot where they fell or washed ashore. It was a stench she could never forget.
I asked if her family was evacuated after the bombing. No, she said, Hawaii had no airports then. The only plane that ever flew to the islands was the China Clipper. The only way out was by ship – and once the war started, that was impossible. Audrey and her family spent three years trapped on Oahu. They lived under a blackout. Their windows were painted black and the entire island was dark at night. Her mother got into the habit of cupping her hand over the lit end of her cigarette, and it was a habit she kept the rest of her life. Audrey lost three years of her education because all the schools were closed. Food was scarce, and people stole food from the base.
After three long years, the family finally got off the island. They came to California on a run-down old tramp steamer that had been decommissioned in 1937. People slept twelve to a stateroom, and it was so unbearable many people took to sleeping on the wet, oily deck. Every now and then someone who had seen too much war would go crazy and commit suicide by jumping overboard, and the crew was instructed not to do anything. They couldn’t jeopardize the entire ship for one person. After twelve days of traveling at only two or three knots (because they could’ve encountered submarines) they docked at San Francisco. There wasn’t a dry eye on the ship. No one had seen city lights in three years. Audrey’s family stayed up all night.
I asked her if she’d ever written down her story for her kids and grandkids, and she just shrugged. It seemed to me that she’d told the story enough times that it was no big deal to her anymore. But it was a big deal to me, and I wanted to know more. But then she was called to help another customer, and I wasn’t able to stop her and ask more questions. I never saw her again when I went back to the store. I’ve always regretted the fact that I didn’t get a chance to ask her more questions or at least thank her for sharing as much as she did.