Eyewitness Account of the Attack on Pearl Harbor

Voyage To and From Hawaii


        In January of 1941, while we were living in West Los Angeles, CA, I was offered a job as hydrological engineer with the San Francisco Division of the Corps of Engineers, to be assigned to the Honolulu District in Hawaii. I accepted and was told to report to San Francisco as soon as possible. I would be transported at once to Honolulu, and my wife Isolene and our furniture would follow as soon as naval transport was available. We gave up our house in West Los Angeles and placed our furniture in storage. Isolene and my year-old son Ronald went by train to Kansas City where they stayed with her sister Flossie until leaving for Hawaii. I drove to San Francisco and reported to the division office where I was officially hired and the necessary paperwork was done. I was then sent to Fort Mason to await transportation to Hawaii.

       At Fort Mason I was assigned to a room that had two beds, one of which was occupied by a Mr. Fugitt, an ensign in the Navy who had been visiting on the mainland and was awaiting transportation back to Hawaii. He was about 40 years of age and extremely sociable, so we soon became good friends. He had been at Fort Mason for some time and said it might be two more weeks or so before naval transport became available. He had bought a number of books to take to Honolulu so we spent our time reading and doing a lot of sightseeing.

       I had been there about a week when I was notified that passage had been booked for me on the Matsonia, one of two passenger steamships that ran weekly between San Francisco and Honolulu. My roommate said that he envied me, as my accommodations would be much better on a commercial liner than his on a Navy transport.

       Many other engineers had been hired at the same time as I and were waiting for their wives to arrive by naval transport. More than a month passed and nothing could be learned of an expected arrival date. Some of the men arranged for passage by the private line that had regular weekly passenger service between San Francisco and Honolulu. I decided to do the same and got passage for Isolene and Ronald and transportation for our automobile. She traveled by train from Kansas City to San Francisco, stayed a night or two at Fort Mason and then boarded the Luraline, the other passenger ship traveling to the island. She arrived in April, 1941 after a very pleasant voyage, so we were united once again and settled down to enjoy the island.

       Our office was located in a building in downtown Honolulu and I met Mr. Fugitt several times on the street after he arrived in Hawaii. He was as friendly as ever and always appeared to be glad to see me. Tension between Japan and the United Slates had risen considerably since my arrival on the island and I once asked him if we could possibly be in any danger if war broke out with Japan. He replied that the Navy constantly had ships at sea patrolling the ocean and that airplanes also patrolled the sky day and night. “The Japanese," he said, "could never get within a thousand miles of the islands."

       About two weeks after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor I again met him on the street and he promptly invited me to lunch. I have never seen a more bitter man. He could not speak about the attack in a rational manner. He said all patrols had been cancelled on Saturday, December 6th, so that military personnel could attend a ball and other celebrations in Honolulu. Therefore the Japanese had been able to come to the island undetected.

       Seething, he declared that General Short of the Army and Admiral Kimmel of the Navy, who were in charge of defense of the Hawaiian Islands, should be court-martialled and shot for dereliction of duty. I did not tell of the incident involving our top-secret map. It would certainly have added fuel to his already hot emotions.

       Several other things that had puzzled me had been explained by others. One was the absence of a substantial American air defense. There were four large military air fields on Oahu, with numerous military aircraft on each, including the one we lived adjacent to, Hickham Field. The airplanes at each field had been parked in straight rows, wing-tip to wing-tip, for a neat and orderly appearance. The Japanese had struck all four fields more or less simultaneously, flying down each row of airplanes machine-gunning them. In a matter of seconds they had destroyed the major part of the American military air capability on Oahu, which was why the Japanese had the sky to themselves when they dropped their bombs.

       Another thing I had wondered about was why the attacking airplanes flew more or less directly over our housing at Hickham Field housing area. The Japanese aircraft carriers launched their airplanes from a point north of Oahu and the planes came to the island in a large arc from an easterly direction with the sun at their backs. This brought them more or less over our housing tract so that we could observe them in detail.

       I had also learned the reason for the outbreak of antiaircraft fire over Pearl Harbor I had witnessed, shortly after taking up guard duty, the first night after the attack. A squadron of American airplanes were returning from an aircraft carrier that had been at sea when the attack occurred. They were met by anti-aircraft fire until their identity was established.

       Officially the Japanese lost 29 airplanes, though not over Pearl Harbor. Some were lost returning to their carriers.

       After the attack on Pearl Harbor life was not pleasant due to the actions of the military authorities. Many of the restrictions and annoyances we experienced were unnecessary and appeared to be due to the military simply wanting to exert its authority.

       One of our problems was the attempt to suppress all news concerning the military. Most of anything we learned was by our observation or by word of mouth. Just about every paper or document in our office was stamped "secret" or "confidential", even if of no importance.

       This brings me to the story of our secret map. This was in a large map case filed in our office and had a special lock on the drawer it was in.  It was always taken out with great precaution so that no one could see it but authorized persons. It showed the location of the defenses of the island. About a week after the attack the first ship containing mail arrived from the mainland. Our chief engineer came in to the large room where we worked with a San Francisco newspaper printed the day after the attack. He said. 'You don't need to keep that secret map locked up any more." On the second page of the paper was a reproduction of our map.  So much for military secrets. Due to lack of official news we depended on rumors which were often incorrect. 

       As they had previously, notices continued to appear on the office bulletin board listing job openings with other Corps of Engineer districts. I applied for all I had proper qualifications for. In May of 1942, some five months after the Japanese attacked, I was notified that I had been offered a job with the District Corps of Engineers headquartered in Sacramento, California. I accepted at once and in about three weeks was ordered to report there.

       We made the necessary arrangements for leaving. On June 20, a Navy truck pulled up at our home and removed all our furniture. I drove our car to the dock and left it there. We spent the night on the floor with borrowed bedding. In the morning a friend of mine at the office, Morel, came by in his car, and took us to the dock where we boarded the U.S. Grant. It was probably a government freighter with a number of cabins on the upper deck.

       We sailed away on June 21, my 38th birthday. The war had cheated Ronald out of his second birthday celebration (eight days after the attack), and now I had to forego celebrating mine.

       We stood on the deck and watched the ship being boarded. Baggage was placed in huge piles on a net, then hoisted by a ship crane and lowered into the hold.  The work was done carelessly - several times the load would hit hard on the side of the ship opening as it was being lowered into the hold. I saw several pieces of luggage fall from the net and crash to the deck.  Finally the automobiles were loaded. I saw our car being picked up and lowered into the hold, luckily without being damaged.

       By dark we were underway and saw the lights of the island fade away. The women passengers got the cabins and the upper deck, four women to a cabin with bunk beds. The men were put in the hold of the ship and restricted to the lower deck at the rear of the ship. They could visit their wives on the upper deck only between one and two o'clock in the afternoon

       Living conditions for the men were very crude. No light could be shown outdoors at night such as from a match or cigarette. The portholes were all closed and blacked out. We had triple-bunk canvas beds with narrow aisles and about twenty inches between beds. Toilet facilities consisted of a metal trough twenty feet in length for urinating and another similar trough with a four-inch wooden pole to sit on while defecating.

       Dining facilities consisted of long wooden tables with seats attached like those in parks. At meal time a man picked up a compartmented tray and then passed by a row of men who ladled food on to their tray.

       Time passed very slowly as there was nothing to do. There was no recreation of any kind, and the only news we had was in the nature of rumor or word-of-mouth passed along from one man to another.

        Some men gathered in groups in the dining room and talked. One of the most interesting was a Negro who was a gifted orator. A graduate from the University of Washington at Seattle, he told about his early life and how his mother worked so he could have an education. He was very radical and bitter about the way Negroes were treated.

       It became cold and chilly the day after we left Honolulu. Judging from this and the position of the stars, I deduced we were on a northerly course.

       At ten o'clock the next day we had a practice evacuation. Each man was given a life jacket which he was to put on.  At a given order he was to jump from the ship and swim away from it. The captain stood on the upper deck and said we were too slow; we should all be up in a minute and a half, as a torpedoed ship went down very fast. We were in a convoy with another ship in the distance behind us. Our ship would not stop, he said, if a passenger went overboard or to offer help to a ship that had been torpedoed.

       At one o'clock I went to the upper deck and saw Isolene, Ronald and two-month old Barbara. The railing of the upper deck had horizontal bars ten inches apart, easy for a small child to slip through. I could see that Isolene’s nerves were on edge. She has told me since that the whole trip was like a nightmare, and she remembered little except for the loading of the luggage, how glad she was when I could visit her on the upper deck, and the submarine alert.

       Days passed that we did not know where we were. Isolene heard a rumor that we were sailing a zigzag course, which was probably true as it took only five and a half or six days for us to travel to Hawaii on the Matsonia and Luraline. We were eleven days on the U.S. Grant and due to the unpleasant conditions it seemed like an eternity

       We were dressed for Hawaiian weather and not the cold North Pacific, so it was hard to remain on deck for long, and there was little to see or do below deck. About the sixth day word passed that someone had fallen overboard. Two hours later we heard that the person had been picked up by one of the escorting destroyers.

       That night, some time after nine o'clock, the ship's propeller and engine stopped, and we stood still on the water. Word went around that a submarine was close by. I went up on deck and stood at the rail. A fog or mist had settled in and I could only see a few hundred feet over the ocean, I have never felt more helpless. What if the ship was torpedoed?  I imagined trying to swim away from the ship among the waves and in the cold water. Isolene trying to get into a lifeboat with a two and a half year old and an infant. It unnerved me. I stood at the rail and prayed; It was one of the most emotional moments of my life. Finally we got underway again and the rumor went around that it was one of our own submarines.

       After what seemed an eternity, the coast of California loomed. The feelings of relief of those on board were best expressed by another engineer on the ship, a man around fifty years old. He said to me, "Do you know the first thing I am going to do when we land, I am going to kneel down and kiss the sidewalk.

       We landed at Fort Mason. I felt unreal, dazed like at the end of a nightmare.

       It was cold in San Francisco, even though early in July. The Red Cross met us as we left the ship, put a sweater on Ronald and a baby blanket around Barbara. They were extremely helpful as though we were evacuees or refugees.

        The next day we drove to Sacramento where it was 110 degrees and we now suffered from the heat.

                                                                                                                                                         ---- John Kuhnel, 1942

Go to the companion piece- The Attack on Pearl Harbo