Until the Japanese struck in December 1941, I was like young Navy wives in Hawaii -- taking the tropical pleasures for granted. I was no stranger to the islands, having lived there 20 years before, when my father, an Army officer, was stationed at Schofield Barracks. One of my childhood memories was that of Father's artillery battery going out on maneuvers to Kole Kole Pass to oppose a simulated amphibious landing by the Japanese. Perhaps because of this childhood exposure to a threat that never materialized -- plus the fact that my generation had grown up in an era of international crises (Spain, Manchuria, Ethopia, the Panay incident, to name a few) -- by 1941, I was too conditioned to war scares to give them much thought. I think my contemporaries felt similarly.
On my return to the islands in April 1941, this time as a bride, I found that Honolulu had not changed greatly. The Royal Hawaiian, Moana and Halekulani were still the main hotels at Waikiki. The beach was uncrowded. There was no excessive crush of tourists. Most of them still came by ship, although the Pan American China Clippers were now flying. Ginger or pikake leis cost 50 cents or a dollar and were sold by buxom Hawaiian women operating from ancient Ford trucks.
My husband Paul, a lieutenant (junior grade), was attached to a submarine at Pearl Harbor. After some searching in the area following our arrival, he and I were able to find a house in a congenial neighborhood. It was a small cul-de-sac of 10 houses just beneath the Punch Bowl in Honolulu.All ten were rented to young Navy couples. The rent was $60 a month -- with gardener. Honolulu seemed a paradise indeed.
That summer, our way of life did suffer some changes, which should have given us an early warning. For instance, one day in August, my husband left for his usual working day at the submarine base, but at noon I learned that he was departing on a long voyage -- date of return not known. This was the beginning of a new program of war patrols instituted by Rear Adm. Thomas Withers Jr., who commanded 21 Pacific Fleet submarines. I learned later that Paul's boat, the USS Dolphin, had sailed for Midway, more than 1,200 miles to the northwest. Upon his return, my husband left in October for a patrol to Wake Island.
There were other indications that trouble was brewing. In October, my father passed through Honolulu en route to the Philippines, where he was to command a regiment. My mother was not allowed to accompany him, which was understandable now that service wives were arriving from the Phillipines, having been summarily excavated because of worsening developments. In November, we were mildly surprised to see Hawaiian Territorial Guards manning machine-gun emplacements on the roofs of the municipal power plant and the telephone exchange. This was at the time of Special Envoy Saburo Kurusu's "last proposals" mission to Washington. Yet such was our unquenchable optimism that we took the visible presence of the guardsmen as only a precautionary measure -- not cause for alarm for the safety of Hawaii. Instead, we presumed that any trouble would first break out in the Phillipines.
On Dec. 3, my husband returned from a 47-day patrol and was scheduled for a 10-day leave. We spent Saturday evening, Dec. 6, at a movie at Fort DeRussy, an old Army post at Waikiki. The next morning, we were awakened by what we thought was artillery fire. Sleep being out of the question, we cursed the Army for conducting practice at such an ungodly hour, but we were sufficiently aroused to turn on the radio. The excited announcer kept repeating that the city was under attack and that all military personnel should report to their stations. Ridiculous as it sounds, in between his spot reports he continued his program of organ music. Hoping prayerfully that the "attack" was actually a realistic practice, I soon sensed that these explosions were real bombs.
I ran outside dressed in my robe while Paul quickly donned his khaki uniform. In the sky above the city and over Pearl Harbor eight miles away I could see diving planes and black puffs of smoke from antiaircraft fire. More ominous were great clouds of smoke over Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field, adajacent to the base. By now, my husband had jumped into our convertible (with the top still down -- to my unreasoning dismay) and with three of our officer-neighbors went tearing off to the naval base.
In a few minutes, a small crowd of young Navy wives and small children, still in nightclothes, had gathered in our lane looking wonderingly at the sky and at each other. Probably we were in a state of shock, but no one panicked. Tied together by a common danger, we soon assembled at one of the homes for mutual comfort and a sharing of speculations.
During the day, our anxiety grew as we suffered from lack of information. I am sure that each of us was plagued by secret fears, not only for ourselves for those we loved. There were so many uncertainties. Was the original attack to be followed by others? Would there be an amphibious landing? Or a bombardment by battleships? Being familiar with the possibilities of naval attack we were, as a group, perhaps more apprehensive than the average citizen of Oahu. But during that long day, we felt a complete sense of confidence in the ability of our armed forces to prove their superiority, and not once did I see or hear a note of pessimism. In fact, by tacit consent we tried to retain our sense of humor and use a light approach to keep ourselves cheerful.
For the next two days following the attack, all of us magnified the specter of followup strikes beyond all reason. The sound of antiaircraft artillery disturbed the night silence as trigger-happy gunners fired at nonexistent targets. The two radio stations, KGU and KGMB, were understandably short of information on damage reports because of the tight censorship. The city, jammed with defense workers and military dependents evacuated from Army posts and the naval base, was full of sensational rumors -- mostly false. Two Japanese carriers had been sunk offshore! The U.S. fleet was engaged in a sea battle off the islands! Probably the news generating the most alarm was that parachutists had landed on country club fairways and that Japanese saboteurs had been sighted on the northern coasts of Oahu. They had been postively identified by the "red disks" on the shoulders. Hypervigilance became the order of the day. During the next few days, a series of airraid sirens kept us dashing about. My reaction, and I wasn't alone in this, was to run for the nearest closet with a frying pan over my head for a helmet.
The uncertainty, mixed with apprehension, was not lost on the small children in our neighborhood, and I remember one mother's successful effort to assure her little family that she would use "Daddy's dress sword to strike down any Jap who tried to enter the house!" So convincing was she that the children promptly went to sleep happily ignorant of the fact that an officer's dress sword is about as lethal as a stick and can hardly cut a wedding cake, as I had discovered some months earlier.
The question of safe drinking water became a problem. Fearful of bombs or sabotage which might damage the water mains, the Board of Water Supply directed that we immediately fill tubs and pots with water. On the afternoon of Dec. 7, another radio announcement warned that the water supply may have been poisoned; soon after, we were informed that the water would be safe for drinking if it were boiled. Twenty-four hours later, the city engineers assured us that tests now proved the water to be pure, with no need to boil it before drinking.
Blackouts went into effect when Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short, the Army commander, declared a state of martial law only hours after the attack. Block wardens were quickly recruited, and in their haste to fill these posts, the authorities probably made some questionable choices.
Our particular block warden was an elderly retired pipefitter, who, impressed by his sudden rise in importance, became something of a minor dictator in enforcement of the regulations. Peering through our windows in the dark, he would distinguish the glow of cigarettes or the radio tubes. At once he would startle us by pounding on the house and shouting, "Put those lights out?" Frantically we would throw a blanket over the radio and crush the offending cigarettes while our zealous warden threatened fines and jail sentences.
The wardens even could be a physical danger to each other, as was sadly demonstrated on the night of Dec. 8, when a 60-year-old Hawaiian Chinese warden suddenly came upon two of his fellow wardens. Although they were his friends, they failed to recognize him in the dark. Jittery to the point of terror, they mistook him for a Japanese parachutist and beat him to insensibility. He died the next day at Queen's Hospital, his skull fractured by blows from a heavy flashlight. The tragedy provided a strong incentive for people to remain indoors at night, whether they were authorized to be out or not.
Wearying of spending each night in blackness, with no entertainment except for listening to the radio, and with no seeming alternative but to cover the windows, doors, and cracks with blankets and towels -- which made any such room an oven -- I devised an air conditioner of sorts. This was a small box frame covered with chicken wire. After filling it with excelsior and wetting it down, I fitted this contraption to the window, stuffed the cracks with paper and set an electric fan just inside the window. This drew an outside air which was cooled by passing through the wet excelsior. We now had a comfortable lighted room -- and without any harassment from the block warden.
The fear of expionage by enemy agents was a constant worry to the authorities. As a security measure, the Army provost marshal forbade the sale of potential spy devices such as photographic and radio equipment. All ham radio operators were told to turn in their sets. One luckless ham found himself in trouble because the police had found three Japanese ham station exchange cards in his house.
The outbreak of hostilities meant that many of the merchant ships plying between the West Coast and Honolulu were diverted to the war effort. Consequently, imports to Hawaii fell to a trickle. We particularly felt the lack of canned goods, paper products, toiletries, and other household items we had taken for granted. Fresh fruit and sugar we had in abundance. As for beef, the huge Parker ranch on the big island of Hawaii supplied the other islands, some shipments of meat being flown over in the small inter-island passenger planes. After an initial period of shortages, the navy yard commissary gradually improved its selections although many nonbasic items remained unprocurable, even after the supply line from the States began to operate with wartime efficiency.
If there were certain shortages in consumer items, there was a veritable glut of sales in second-hand furniture and autos in the few weeks left in December. Some early-departing families panicked at the rumor that these items could not be guaranteed shipment back to the States, and many took a large financial loss. One officer friend, who was leaving immediately for distant duty, sold his car to the first comer for $35. My husband and I were offered a large lot in Manoa Valley for the ridiculously low price of $1,000. We turned it down, to our everlasting regret. Surprisingly, in view of the shortages, prices in the stores remained stable -- for a while. Liberty House offered sport shirts for $2 and slips for $1.25. The hoarders soon moved in, and supplies in the shops quickly gave out.
But shortages were a minor irritation compared with the discouraging battle reports in the press and on the radio. The diaster at Clark Field in the Philippines just after Pearl Harbor affected me personally. My father, with his troops on Luzon, now seemed to me to be in real danger, and although I had no way of knowing it, his capture on Bataan was only weeks away. (He was rescued by Russian troops in Manchuria in 1945 and returned to active duty.) The fall of Guam and Wake Island meant that some our our service friends faced a most uncertain future. Worse, the terrible toll of our 2,403 killed and some 1,178 wounded on Oahu was beginning to filter out.
In spite of the discouraging news from the war front, those in our little cul-de-sac were determined to celebrate Christmas as much as possible in the traditional way. Few husbands would be present, because most of them had departed on operational missions. The absence of any Christmas trees posed a problem. In past years, these had been brought in from Seattle or San Francisco, but with cargo space at a premium, none could be expected this year. However, our thoughtful landlady supplied the need by furnishing us branches from ironwood trees, which have a bushy appearance not unlike an evergreen. These we wired to a broom handle, producing a passable Christmas tree, at least in the eyes of the little children. For the adults, I contributed our last bottle of whiskey to the communal celebration.
Our liquor shortage stemmed from the military governor's ban on the sale of all liquor, wine and beer effective the afternoon of Dec. 7. Inevitably, the absence of the evening cocktail prompted the inventive among us to experiment with weird recipes for fermenting pineapple juice -- which we had in abundance. Regrettably these concoctions were largely undrinkable, so we became resigned to abstience. On one occasion, the drought was temporarily ended when one of the husbands appeared with a quart of grain alcohol, vaguely accounted for as "surveyed from the ship's binnacle." It made a potent punch when mixed with fruit juice and ice, and turned the afternoon into something of a block party.
The number of my friends being evacuated from Honolulu continued to grow. The first to go were those who had lost husbands; next came mothers with babies, and last, pregnant women. We had been warned by the military authorities that we would receive only 24 hours' notice of departure, so we lived from day to day out of suitcases, never sure when our call would come.
By mid-April, our group had dwindled to the few who either had husbands based on shore duty or held defense jobs, such as that of mail censor. But I was unemployed and, worse in the eyes of the Army, pregnant. Moreover, my husband was now absent on longer patrols. One reason I had been able to remain until now could be traced to the yeoman in the transportation office who had previously served with my husband; by request he replaced my card on the bottom whenever my name came up in the pile of evacuees' cards. Eventually, the stack grew too small to hide my name, and I received my call on April 20.
My preparations were brief; our few household goods, mainly wedding presents, had been shipped several months before, and I had only to close my trunk and suitcases. The transportation office clerk informed me that the sailing was to be kept secret, but how does one conceal a departure with so much baggage in evidence? Friends drove me to the pier where the leave-taking was subdued. No bands, flower leis, and paper streamers -- so customary in prewar years. Instead there was a mixed group, nearly all women and children, with the unmistakable look of refugees. Quite a few were of Oriental descent, and many going to the States for the first time, some to live with their in-laws. I thought of the problems sure to arise for all concerned.
The shabby transport H. F. Alexander to which I had been assigned was, to my amazement, the same ship which had taken my family and me from Seattle to Honolulu in 1920.
By noon on April 22, we got under way to join a convoy off the Pearl Harbor channel. Planes were circling overhead, and harbor craft patrolled around us as we were shepherded into formation.
The stateroom, which I shared with two other women, was very small, and made even more so by the installation of three tiers of wooden bunks. I chose a bottom berth, but found it took some practice to even turn over because of the narrow clearance. My delicate condition and the uncomfortable rolling of the ship persuaded me to spend much of the eight-day voyage in my bunk.
Shipboard life was austere. There were no recreational facilities sich as shuffleboard, a lounge, movies, or card room. The meals were adequate if not appealing, the chefs relying heavily on mutton, beef, potatoes, cabbage, and turnips. The usual desert was pudding or cake -- both rubbery -- or canned fruit. The bread was a type of hard roll which had been taken aboard in Australia, some weeks before. Our limited social life was further curtailed on the fourth day out when the captain forbade anyone to appear outside of her particular passageway after the dinner hour. Apperently some of the more restless women had been -- to put it charitably -- fraternizing with the crew. So the captain's order was a prudent one in view of the youthfulness of the seamen and the presence of bored or commercially minded females.
The ship's company was an unusual one. Most of the officers, who wore the conventional merchant marine uniform, were overage for active service; most, in fact, had been brought back from retirement. The crew members were predominatly boys in their teens. They wore a motley assortment of clothing, usually bell-bottomed trousers with jerseys or singlets, and many were barefooted. When I suggested to an officer that the crew looked inexperienced, he assured me that all had survived at least one sinking. He added that the Royal Navy, desperate for manpower, had stripped the merchant marine of all the more able seamen, leaving only the boys and older men.
In our convoy were 10 ships -- six naval vessels and four merchantmen. We were formed into two columns, the H. F. Alexander being the second ship in the port column. In the starboard column we recognized the damaged battleship Nevada, which had been patched up and was undoubtedly headed for one of the navy yards. The cruiser San Francisco steamed ahead of the convoy while the destroyers Case and Reid ranged back and forth on the flanks. We zigzagged constantly during the day and even at night when the moon was bright. The weather was usually very windy and squally, and quite rough.
Our greatest concern was a submarine attack. Daily, when we woke in the morning our first move was to look out the port to check the presence of our escorts. One night, we were nearly thrown out of our bunks as the ship made a sudden turn to port. We immediately surmised that a submarine was after us; not until morning did we learn that the Chaumont had fired a red flare signaling a submarine contact, later reported to be false. Incidents like this kept us a shipload of nervous women.
One outstanding feature of the H.F. Alexander which proved that we were sailing with professional mariners was the marked consideration shown for the safety of the passengers. Not only were we required to muster every day at our assigned lifeboats, but we were briefed on the location of the boat's water flasks and rations. We praticed wearing and adjusting our life jackets, which had to be within arm's reach at all times, no matter where we were. Every evening an officer made the rounds of the outboard cabins to dog down our porthole cover. But unfortunately, the room at once became stifling, so in defiance of safety regulations, we reopened the port tiwh a sturdy coathanger, first being sure to turn out all lights. With the wisdom of age, I now recognize that if we had started to sink, the open port-would have reduced the floatability of the ship. But at the time, for us it was the question of dying of suffocation or opening the port.
On the seventh day out, the purser announced that an entertainment would take place that evening in the dining room. After dinner, stewards pushed tables together to form a makeshift stage. Our master of ceremonies was a retired vaudevillian whose wife served as the pianist. By any standards, the show was a true amateur hour. But if the harmonica players, magicians, jugglers and singers were undistinguished, the show also provided the most unforgettable incident of the voyage. It came when one of the very youngest of the crew began to sing old Irish ballads in a beautiful tenor. He evoked such a feeling of nostalgia that the entire audience became affected, and most of the women were teary eyed. There was not one person listening who did not share his longing for home, whether it was faraway Ireland or some special place each of us had left behind. We had been uprooted, and the young Irish boy had suddenly and poignantly made us realize it.
On the afternoon of April 28, we suspected we were nearing the West Coast when a destroyer, the USS Laffey, came steaming over the horizon and came alongside the Nevada to deliver a package. Promptly, the battleship left the formation and headed north in company with the Laffey. The next day, we sighted a scouting blimp on antisubmarine patrol. These next were anxious hours, for according to our rumor experts, enemy submarines always lurked off busy ship channels. Happily, there were no alerts and early in the morning of April 30 the sight of the Golden Gate generated a mass feeling of relief at reaching safety in the beautiful city of San Francisco.
Forty years later, as I look back on my Pearl Harbor experience, I remain convinced that most young Navy wives who were there did what they had to do -- adjusted to the unusual and accustomed themselves to the unexpected. Which, after all, is what a service wife must do in any era.