(A personal account of Pearl Harbor)

It was Sunday, December 7, 1941.  I arose about 7:00 A.M., went outside and began to hoe in our garden.  It was a beautiful day, typical of the Islands, warm, balmy air, cloudless and the sky light blue.

While working away, I heard the drone of many airplanes and soon they were all around.  Everywhere I looked, they were to be seen.  They were circling around and darting in and out over the hangars of Hickam Field which was about a mile or so south of our house and also over Pearl Harbor which lay about a mile and a half to the west.  The sound of machine gun fire and other explosions began to mingle with the noise of the airplanes.

The noise got Isolene up and she came out to watch.  After a few minutes, she said, "Ronald would certainly enjoy this", and went in the house and got him out of bed.  She was right; he certainly did.  I did myself, and remarked, "This sure beats any Fourth of July celebration I have ever seen."

Airplanes were coming and going, some were diving.  The noise was tremendous.  It was quite exciting. They were flying rather recklessly, I thought, and more than once appeared to be in danger of colliding.  One airplane went down trailing fire and smoke; another appeared to be in difficulty and coming down at top speed.  The scene became more exciting as time passed, not only were many airplanes flying around, but fast ones roared by only a few hundred feet over our heads, shaking the house with their noise.

It was getting around 9:00 A.M. and anti-aircraft fire was beginning to get heavy. At first, it had been quite scattered, but now it was becoming continuous. Two or three thousand feet up, the shells would explode with quite a bang.  Some left a puff of red smoke, others black, white or yellow smoke. They formed quite a pattern over both Hickam Field and Pearl Harbor.  The airplanes paid no attention to this anti-aircraft fire and I did not see any of them get hit by it.

Four types of attacks were in evidence. The most interesting yet the least exciting were the high level bombers. They were high, 6000 feet or more, in V formations of five each.  They came in waves perhaps a mile or more apart.  Bombs could be seen leaving the ships and could be followed by eye until within several thousand feet from the Earth when they would disappear by blending with the background.  Each group of five ships would drop their bombs simultaneously, one big one from each and then fly on and disappear. I remarked to Isolene that the flyers certainly had confidence in their ability because if the bombs were practice ones, they were dropping them mighty close to inhabited areas, and that there must be danger of some going astray.

The most spectacular type was the dive bomber. From high up in the sky they would appear at first a little dot, then getting larger rapidly. They came down in a huge arc, each airplane one or two thousand feet behind the other.  When pointing almost straight down and a short distance above the Earth, a bomb would fall out and then the airplane would level off. At times, it appeared impossible that they could ever pull out of the dives.

There would be perhaps fifteen airplanes in a line, one behind the other, and two or three lines converging on a single target.

A type of airplane that I had never seen before was the torpedo carrier.  They came almost directly over our house.  Small, slow airplanes, each carrying a huge torpedo hung underneath.  There were these planes only a hundred or two hundred feet above the ground and we could see the pilots looking down at us. About thirty passed by, headed for Pearl Harbor.  Shortly afterwards, a series of loud explosions were heard and dense black smoke arose.  It came up like a huge mushroom; like smoke from a forest fire only black clouds of it arose, miles high, finally bending to the southwest like a huge plume.

The fourth type of airplane was a low, level bomber. They flew close to the ground, bombing and machine gunning. They were the most in evidence as they stayed around. The other types dropped their bombs and left at once.

It was getting late for breakfast, so we went in to eat.  However, the electricity was off and we could not cook, so we only stayed in a few minutes.

While standing outside, I heard bits of shell falling around us and several things whistled through the air that sounded like they might be spent bullets.  "The gunners seem to be mighty careless about where they shoot," I said to Isolene.  "Perhaps we had better stand under the eaves of the house."  This we did and continued to watch the airplanes and the bursting shells.

We had assumed from the first that we were witnessing a practice attack by one group of American forces. We had seen similar scenes before, only not on such a large scale, nor had any bombs fallen or smoke arose.  Even the big red disk visible on the airplanes did not disturb us.  I knew it was the Japanese symbol, but assumed that it was part of the plan for practice combat.  However, everything didn't seen just right and many of our neighbors, who were also standing around watching, began to get uneasy.  One of them came over and began to discuss the possibility of the raid being real. Among his statements, the one that carried the most weight was "Did you ever see airplanes that looked like those?"  I had to admit that I had not!  Finally, he left, got in his car and drove over to the Field gate to secure information.  In about fifteen minutes, he came back and shortly afterwards came out with his wife and baby and began to drive away.  I stopped him and inquired what he had found out.  "It's the real thing.  I'm beating it," and away he went.

I couldn't believe it; it just didn't seem possible.  The thought of danger didn't enter our heads.  The big thing was what the raid stood for.  I had to check for myself, so I drove over to the gate. A wild scene presented itself there.  Cars were driving in madly or on down the road to Pearl Harbor, loaded with soldiers and sailors from town. Guards were shouting and swearing. A big man was standing to one side watching the scene. I went over and asked him if it was a real raid, "it sure is" he answered.  "I was down at the drydock when it was blown up.  Two battleships are destroyed.  The Harbor is filled with dead sailors floating around. I am lucky to be alive."

I drove back to the house and met one of my neighbors.  He had a scalp wound and blood was dripping from it.  He said, "I was down in the airplane repair hangar when it was bombed. I was blown against the wall, but managed to get out before it burned.  The hangars, the barracks, the post exchange, the mess hall, the theatre, and the church are all gone.  Most of the airplanes are destroyed.  There are dead soldiers everywhere."

On to the house I went, dazed and bewildered.  No one sought shelter, we stood around watching the billowing smoke, the few airplanes still circling around and the anti-aircraft fire.  About 11:00 A.M. a policeman on a motorcycle came along and ordered us to evacuate in ten minutes.  Our thoughts were so confused, we didn't seem to know what to take.  We threw some bedding, clothes and food into the car, picked up our next door neighbors who didn't have a car, and drove to town.  Cars were driving around at high speed; no one paid attention to red lights or stop signs.  Smoke was pouring up from the central section of town.  I drove to the house of one of the men in our office, Earl Holman.  His wife welcomed us and invited all of us in to stay.  Their radio was working advising everyone to stay home and off the streets and for the U.S. Engineers to report at once at a point on the water front.

At Kawala Basin, there were about fifty or so Japanese sampans or fishing boats tied up with a man in each one holding a pick. If given a signal, they were to punch holes in the bottoms and sink the boats.  There were several large warehouses in which men were unloading guns, ammunition, clothing, lumber, lanterns and supplies of all kinds. Trucks were coming and going.  Some were bringing the equipment from our office which I heard was being abandoned. Outside, a dragline and about fifty men were digging trenches.  Others were erecting timber barricades along the water's edge. Everything was confusion.  No one was giving orders and no one knew what to do.  Many just stood around and talked.  After discussing the morning's happenings with others, I began to unload trucks although no one knew just what we were supposed to do with the things.  About 5:00 P.M., I was asked to volunteer for guard duty.  An attack was expected that night.

My immediate superior lived at Hickam Field and wished to go there and get his uniform as he was a reserve officer.  I offered to drive him out there in my car as I wished to get things we needed from our house.  Everything was quiet and deserted there.  Smoke still poured up from Pearl Harbor, and every once in a while, an explosion would come from there. Our electric clock was stopped at 7:55 A.M.  The transformer at Hickam Field had been hit by one of the first bombs, destroying electric service all over the Field.  Our radio had gone dead as had all of our neighbors', so we had no news that the attack was real as did the people in town.  I loaded up the car with various articles that we might need.  A neighbor came in and told me what a narrow escape we had had.  He showed me where bullets and pieces of shell had struck houses, sidewalks, lawns and streets close to where we lived.

We returned to Kawala Basin where I was given an arm band, a rifle and ammunition. I was assigned a stretch of waterfront in a remote and lonely spot. Everyone was jittery and nerves were on edge. Many had never had a rifle in their hands before and did not know how to use them.  I felt more afraid of being shot by our own men than I did by the Japanese. They fired at rocks, stumps, waves and people. Many people were killed that night by guards and soldiers.  It was a week before this situation was stopped, but it got to be serious.  Not one word of it ever appeared in print and the censors kept it from going out in the mails.  Soldiers killed soldiers while on patrol duty.  Any Japanese out after dark had a slim chance of getting back alive.

About 8:30 P.M., the sky over Pearl Harbor became filled with anti-aircraft fire. It was a beautiful sight, but I just stared at it feeling about as helpless as I had ever felt in my life.  Was it the Japanese returning to take the helpless island by storm?  I had talked to various people and found out that all four of the airfields on the island had been bombed and that destruction was heavy and that most of the airplanes were destroyed.  One man estimated that perhaps 20 had been saved by heroic work at Hickam Field.  I had seen three American airplanes take off from there during the raid. They merely went up a short way and then down again, evidently in adjoining cane fields. Whether shot down or forced down, I never found out. They were the only American airplanes I saw during the entire raid.

The news about the fleet was worse, if anything. Many ships had been sunk or damaged. Seven battleships had been in the harbor. Five were on the bottom just with the superstructure showing.  Another was badly hit and listing against the wharf.  Many soldiers and sailors were dead. The Island could not be held against a serious invasion attempt. We had been so confident just 12 hours previous that no enemy could ever capture these islands, and now we realized it might be done within a few hours.

I spent one of the longest nights I have ever experienced.  It was rainy and cold out, not being dressed for such weather, I nearly froze.  I would gaze into the night trying to see the approaching enemy.  My mind was in a turmoil of thoughts.  If I was not killed immediately, what should I do.  Try to regain my family and protect them? Or kill them?  Memories of what I had read of the treatment of white people in the Boxer Rebellion came to my mind.  After all, even at best, conquered people usually get poor treatment.  Then, 80% of our food was imported from the Mainland. The Japanese couldn't begin to feed that population even if they were so inclined.  My wife was five months' pregnant.  My son was not yet two years of age.  If I was killed, who would look out for them?  To kill them appeared best but what an ending of all my plans and dreams!

The dawn finally arrived and other thoughts occupied my mind. We collected around the warehouse wondering what to do.  Nothing developed, so I drove over to where Isolene was staying. She was glad to see me, having spent a night not much happier than mine.  We still lacked essential articles, so I drove again to Hickam Field, took a quick bath and returned.  The city was strangely quiet, like on Sunday.  Stores were closed and hardly anyone was moving about.

Our office was being moved to Punakee School, so I went over there. It was a madhouse of confusion. People were dashing around doing this and that and no one could give any information about what was happening.  A person just picked a job and did what looked reasonable.  Desks and papers were piled up here and there. Trucks were coming in loaded with lumber, tools, tires and all sorts of supplies.  Men were digging trenches and erecting barbed wire barricades.  It looked like they were preparing for a siege which seemed crazy to me. Our Colonel walked around very nervous, carrying a big revolver, a rifle and two hand grenades.  He looked like he was prepared to sell his life dearly and expected to have to do so any minute. If this is the way a democracy fights, we are licked, I thought.  Toward evening I was asked if I would continue guard duty and was told to report early in the morning at Ft. Shatter.  I went to Holman's house, sat around in the darkened house and then went to bed for the first time since the raid. Although quite tired, sleep wouldn't come.  Every time I closed my eyes, I would see long lines of dive bombers coming out of the blue sky.

Tuesday morning after long waits and delays, I with six others began to guard the rapid transit buildings.  I was given the power station and relieved a soldier who had been there since Sunday without relief.  He told me that he had been on Hickam Field operating a machine gun during the raid. He was the only one left alive out of the crew of five.

Time passed slowly and monotonously. We changed about every two hours, but got quite bored.  The night was cold and seemed long.  I was behind on my sleep but was still too keyed up to sleep.  When not on duty, we stayed in a dark crowded room not conducive to sleep.  I was very pleased when late Wednesday we were relieved by the Territorial Guard.  It was dark and no transportation was available. I decided to risk being shot at and started to walk the two miles or so to Holman's house. Every block or so, I would be halted and have to explain why I was out walking. It was a very dark night, which didn't help matters.

The next day, I reported at the office and found it was operating on a 24 hour basis. My hours were 4:00 P.M. to midnight. This worked out fairly well as I had time during the daylight hours to do things.  But it meant being out on the streets after dark - a very dangerous thing. After a week or so, the most serious danger passed, but it was never safe. I was stopped often and always felt relieved to get home. After about two months of this, I went back to day duty.

Ronald had his birthday on the 15th. He had no cake or celebration of any kind. I took him to the park and took his picture the best I could. 

Bomb shelters were constructed at Hickam Field, and on the 17th we were permitted to return.  It was a great relief to get back to our own house.

Life was very restricted.  No one was allowed out after dark; special passes were required to go many places, no lights could be shown after dark, and as the sun set about 5:00 P.M., this was a great handicap.

We settled down to make the best of the situation. The tension died down, days passed, the Japanese did not return, reinforcements began to arrive.  Hickam Field being a center of Military activity, we moved to Kahala.  Many Army and Navy families were leaving and houses were available at a fair rental.  (We paid $75.00 per month)

The food situation got bad, for months butter, eggs and meat were all but unobtainable, and fresh vegetables were very scarce.  The military authorities made many regulations which greatly inconvenienced the people.  Blackout restrictions were enforced in a brutal manner and with unnecessary and unreasonable fines imposed for minor or technical violations.  Life was not pleasant and we and many others were glad to leave when the opportunity presented itself.  There was always a certain tension hanging over us which we perhaps were not aware of, but it kept our nerves a little on edge.  We might be bombed any moment of the day or night, or the Japanese might, through their own skill or through error on our part, someday capture the Islands.

The Japanese spared us on the 7th. I have read since then they have great respect, for children.  There were many of them out like Ronald in the housing area.  It might be the reason we were spared.  Perhaps they were not after civilians.  Who knows?

                                                                                                                                ---- John Kuhnel. 1942


Go to the companion piece - The Voyage to and from Hawaii