The scene that Sunday was familiar. Newspapers announced 15 shopping days until Christmas. Business was good, thanks to lend-lease, a law passed in 1941 that established the principal means for providing U.S. military aid to foreign nations during the early stages of WWII. Negotiations with the Japanese were at a standstill. Jukeboxes played “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “New San Antonio Rose” and “Walking the Floor Over You.”
The sun rose gloriously over the islands, and Dec. 7 would have been a wonderful time to explore Oahu, go into Honolulu or stay aboard ship and write letters to loved ones. I was 21, in the service two years, and I personally planned for a day of rest and relaxation aboard ship.
About 0740 hours, I stood alone portside on the deck of the USS Tennessee, next to the USS West Virginia, looking over the shipyard that serviced U.S. Navy vessels. The battleships of the Pacific Fleet—the California, the Maryland, the Oklahoma, the Tennessee, the West Virginia, the Arizona and the Nevada—lay anchored alongside Ford Island. USS Pennsylvania was in dry dock, and the rest of the harbor was spotted with cruisers, destroyers and ships of every size—a display of the greatest sea power in the world.
As I thought about my parents and siblings, I watched a force of fighters, dive bombers and torpedo planes arrive over the Koolau Mountain Range. The planes flew low enough and close enough that I could plainly see the pilots’ faces and their fur-collared jackets with white scarves. They passed the Arizona, the West Virginia, the Oklahoma and the Maryland. I counted 10, 20, 30, 40 of them. Although I saw the red ball painted on the wings, I still did not realize they were Japanese.
Suddenly I heard a loud explosion and saw dirt and smoke rising in the sky ahead and to the right of my ship. Only then did I realize we were under attack. I was witnessing the first minute of the official entry of the United States into World War II. The planes had flown to the airfields, destroying our planes and hangars before returning to bomb the battleships.
In the mayhem, I heard these orders: “All hands, man your battle station. This is no drill.”
I heard that message many times in the months to follow, but that first time will live with me forever.