Pearl Harbor Day – A Family Story
These are the stories of my childhood, and the words of my father…From Pop’s firsthand account of December 7, 1941…
“The USS Honolulu started backing out and they dropped this 500 pound bomb thru the deck and it split the seams so she never got out. Some ships got out, I don’t know which ones but St. Louis got out. I ran on the wrong ship hoping to go to sea but it was interesting and scary…very scary! To stand there and see your entire fleet, the greatest fleet in the world on the bottom, tore your heart out. We were invincible, we thought. Nobody could do this to us.”
Marcus G. Klein, USN…Pearl Harbor Survivor
What comes to mind for you when you think of December 7, 1941? When I think of December 7, 1941, one word comes to mind…
Imagine, if you can, the sheer terror of those who lived it, and through it, and how they must have felt, as they witnessed the waves of Japanese planes attacking our Fleet at Pearl Harbor, and our Air Forces at nearby Hickam Field at 7:00 AM that Sunday morning. (Hickam and the Naval Base Pearl are now a Joint US Facility)
It was a quiet Sunday morning, and then…
As I learned from Mom and Pop, and later from my studies of Naval History at the Naval Academy, surprise was the first successful objective of the Japanese Fleet that morning.
The US was fortunate, or it was “Divine Providence” that our carriers were at sea that morning. They were spared the destruction.
Aircraft carriers were not battle tested and the Battleship was thought to be the ultimate weapon by many naval strategists. Of course a main target for the Japanese that morning was “Battleship Row.” The devastation of our battleships presented an opportunity for aircraft carriers which then became instrumental to our success in the Pacific, and the entire war effort.
Aircraft carriers to this day are one of the primary components of our worldwide naval strategy. They were a relatively new weapons platform with new and untested strategies and tactics in 1941.
For those who were experiencing the attack, it was hard to imagine what was going on around them, at first.
Pop thought it was a drill…there was an initial lack of comprehension, followed by confusion, disbelief, and then, it was all about Duty. The task at hand: run into the fire, and not away from it. That is exactly what our servicemen and women did that morning. Duty…leave your family for the unknown.
Imagine the terror, not knowing if the attack would continue to the general Population around our key military installations on the Island, and not just the military resources, personnel and assets.
Imagine the terror, not knowing if the attack was a prelude to a full scale Japanese invasion of the Hawaiian Islands. The Japanese Army had a very bad reputation and the stories of how they treated prisoners of war in China were horrific. Describing it as rape, pillage and plunder would have been a dramatic understatement. Add torture, dismemberment, and desecration of the human body, and you have a better idea. They were not pleasant captors. And the thought of a follow up invasion to the initial attack was a real concern.
In fact, US currency in use in the Hawaiian Islands during the War was marked so that in the event the Japanese did invade Hawaii, and capture US currency, the currency with Hawaii printed across its face, could be deemed nonnegotiable by the US Government, and thus not contribute to the Japanese war effort.
Note that HAWAII is stamped on the left and right sides of the dollar bill.
Note H A W A I I across the entire back of the dollar bill.
These were known as Hawaii War Dollars
Imagine the terror, and apprehension, of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines as Duty called them to abandon family and loved ones.
There was no time for preparation or long, or even short good-byes. Service members had to do whatever it took to get back to their duty station immediately, be it their ship, or one of our numerous military installations on the Island…Pearl Harbor, Hickam Field, Bellows Field, Fort Shafter.
Duty called. It had to be an agonizing decision, not knowing what would happen to those they loved. Leaving their family and friends behind to fend for themselves.
Imagine the terror, as friends and relatives on the Mainland US, who had loved ones stationed in the Islands, heard the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was unthinkable. Their first thought was probably about the survival of their loved one, and on its heels to the country as a whole, and what would happen next, what would President Roosevelt say? It was a day that would live in Infamy.
Imagine the continuing terror of not knowing who survived the attack and who didn’t, and being separated by thousands of miles with no telephone service, no Internet…no way of knowing?
Below is a treasured family memento, the telegram my grandparents in Detroit sent to my Dad and Mom on December 8, 1941.
It is faded and frayed, but still readable…”Are you OK.”
In 1941, there was little long distance telephone capability, no e-mail, no text messaging or Facebook…no instant communication to ease the anxiety of families and friends who had loved ones in the Hawaiian Islands that day.
It says: “Are you both safe? Wire us collect.” It was sent on December 8, 1941
While it is difficult, if not impossible to imagine the terror, I feel I know as well as anyone who was not there, the terror and apprehension of that day. It was baked into the fabric of our family.
It was my good fortune to be raised in the company of fairly young adults who experienced the attack on Pearl Harbor first hand, and who had to grow up quickly. Both my Mom and Dad, and my mother’s Mom and Dad…my aunts and uncles, and their friends and families were there, and the attack on Pearl Harbor was not only a seminal event in all of our lives. I heard their stories many times as a young boy, living in a post WWII Honolulu, right outside of the Main Gate of Pearl Harbor, and across the street from Block Arena, on Center Drive.
Mom and Pop’s story of that day, and beyond, is an amazing one, like so many stories from that infamous day.
They met in Hilo, Hawaii in January of 1941. Pop was a sailor, a Jewish kid, 23 years old, from Detroit, Michigan. Mom was a 17 year old local girl (Hawaiian, Portuguese, English, and a little Chinese for good measure some say). They were married on June 28th, 1941 in Honolulu, by a Justice of the Peace.
On Sunday Morning, December 7, 1941, they lived in Navy Housing Area 3 (NHA 3) on Ninth Street, a few blocks outside of the Main Gate of Pearl Harbor.
My Mother’s parents lived in a little frame shack on “P Road” in an area known as Damon Tract, which is now close to where the Honolulu International Airport is located.
Mom and Dad’s survival story of December 7 and the rest of the War is an amazing series of events. They were married for over 64 years, bound together by many things, including their experience from 1941 to 1945, their separations, and all that they endured together, and apart…for each other, and for us.
On December 7, 1941, young Sailors (E-4 and below) were not allowed overnight Liberty, unless they were married.
Bluejacket’s Manual defines LIBERTY as permission to be absent from a ship or station for a period up to 48 hours. For this reason, Pop was not aboard ship on that Sunday morning but at home with Mom. Had he been single, he would have been aboard his ship, the USS Medusa, a repair ship (Pop always described it as a Battleship Tender) and he would have been killed as his battle station was the crow’s nest, which was completely destroyed in the attack by friendly fire (again, according to Pop). The joke in our family over the years was how by being married, Mom saved Dad’s life.
USS Medusa – Pop’s Battle Station, the After Crow’s nest was destroyed…by friendly fire, according to Pop.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was an awakening for the American People. As a nation, we did not want to be involved in the storm that was becoming a World War. But when our Fleet was destroyed, as President Roosevelt said, a sleeping giant was awakened and the United States of America recovered to defeat not one, but two formidable enemies, and it was “Unconditional Surrender.”
The Japanese were committed to victory, honor, and to the emperor. As a young boy (I am 67 years old as I write this), I remember how eerie and unbelievable it was when I learned of pilots who were willing to sacrifice their lives and fly their planes into our ships, killing our sailors and themselves in the process. They were the suicide bombers, the Kamikazes. The Kamikaze pilots would leave their bases with their fuel tanks half full (probably half empty in this case). They had enough fuel to reach their target, and no fuel to return.
As unbelievable as that idea seemed to me as a boy, the concept seems mild today when we look at the present day suicide bombers. And the Japanese avoided killing innocents, which is the objective of today’s suicide bombers. How the world has changed.
“Happy Pearl Harbor Day” is a Family Tradition
Every year since I left home when I was 19 years old in 1968 to attend the United States Naval Academy, I called my Dad on December 7th to wish him “Happy Pearl Harbor Day,” no matter where I happened to be in the world. One year I was deployed in the Western Pacific and in the Philippines at the proverbial “tip of the sword.” We talked about Pearl Harbor and where he and Mom were that day, and what they were doing. I loved to hear my Dad retell the story, year after year. I know it made him feel good to tell it.
I keep this story alive to honor all of the Pearl Harbor Survivors, and the most important Pearl Harbor Survivors in my life, my Mom and Dad, and their Shipmates and their families. December 7th has always been a day of remembrance in the Marcus and Lani Klein family.
The following is our family version of the events of December 7, 1941 and the thoughts and sharings of some of those who were there that day. December 7, 1941 was the start of much more hardship to come…for our country, our citizens, and our Armed Forces.
Each year I review and add to this story of my family’s memories of December 7th, 1941. These memories were related to me and my sister Debbie by Mom and Dad, not only on December 7 each year, but often over the years, in different places and at different times, and in different company, as many of Mom and Dad’s good friends were also Pearl Harbor Survivors, Submariners, and Survivors of the War.
This is my memory of others’ memories, and expressing it each year is my way of keeping Pearl Harbor Day alive for me. Perhaps it will stimulate your own thoughts, memories, and imagination…and your own Pearl Harbor Story. There was once so many to tell.
My mother and father were both, always proud to say that they survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the aftermath…Sub school in New London, and Submarine war patrols in the South Pacific…and the rest of the World War II.
We lost Pop in 2005, and Mom passed away in August of 2013. December 7th, 1941 was a defining moment in their young lives, and a significant influence in mine, even though it took place almost 8 years before I was born.
Mom and Pop were members of the “Greatest Generation,” and I was fortunate to be raised in the constant company of many who understood that the price of freedom is commitment and personal sacrifice. And they were all willing and anxious to pass the importance of these values on to me and my sister.
Part of Mom and Pop and all of their friends and shipmate’s enduring legacy and gift to me/us is the preservation of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and a national identity…which may seem quaint today, but something I believe helped make freedom the way we know it today, possible.
Today, it seems, that many aspects of these freedoms are taken for granted by many, not understood by many, not valued by many. If we do not remain forever vigilant, and diligent…many of our freedoms will be lost by many. Each day I become less confident that there is the ability to save these freedoms for future generations. We are rapidly losing history’s important lessons.
The passing time, for me, brings a deeper appreciation of the sacrifices of those who came before us. They conveyed their virtues and values by words…and, more importantly, by their acts and deeds…unlike much of what we see in our society and culture today.
That powerful national identity began to come into focus for many on December 7, 1941.
Pop Volunteered for submarine duty and graduated from Sub School in New London, and spent the rest of the war on the USS Balao in the South Pacific.
My Mom was almost 89 when I visited her on December 7, 2012, her last Pearl Harbor Day, at the nursing home. We “talked story” about December 7, 1941 and about Pop, and about how I would call him and wish him a “Happy Pearl Harbor Day” every year. As usual, she brought up “the day I was born story.” This was the end of an almost lifelong ritual for me…except to continue to write about it.
“Happy Pearl Harbor Day?
According to Pop, you bet.
Happy to have survived. And happy to live in the United States of America.
What does Pearl Harbor mean to you?
Over the years, different members of our many online communities have shared their memories and Pearl Harbor stories, and we would love to hear yours, if you are so inclined. If not, I understand, but please wish everyone you see today a “Happy Pearl Harbor Day.”
So this is my story, and I am sticking to it!
Happy Pearl Harbor Day to everyone.
For more of the history of this time: