Julie McDonald Commentary: Remember Pearl Harbor Eight Decades After the Attack

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Eighty years ago today, on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, damaging or destroying 19 Navy ships, killing 2,403 people and drawing the United States into World War II.

Aboard the USS Arizona, 1,177 men perished. Another 429 died on the USS Oklahoma, where Adna’s George A. “Cy” Simmons served as a boatswain’s mate. He died June 12, 2009.

Few of the adults who witnessed the attack remain alive today. That’s why I’m grateful many local veterans and civilians shared their recollections before they passed.

I’ve written in the past about other Lewis County veterans who served at Pearl Harbor during the attack:

• Vern Jacobson, a Winlock resident who served that fateful Sunday morning aboard the USS California, which was struck by three torpedoes and a bomb that exploded on the second deck. At the order to abandon the blazing ship, Jacobson dove into the water, swam through black oil, and veered around or beneath flames. In May 1942, the 19-year-old helped salvage the USS West Virginia, where he retrieved decomposed bodies of servicemen trapped when the ship sank. Jacobson died at 87 on Sept. 13, 2010.

• Howard Gage of Centralia was playing poker with three other men Sunday morning aboard the USS Nevada when the Japanese attacked, strafing and bombing ships in the harbor and airplanes and hangars at Hickam Field on Ford Island. After six incendiary bombs and a torpedo struck the ship, the Nevada headed out to sea but ran aground in mud south of Ford Island. Gage died May 6, 2016, at 93.

• William “Bill” Furrer of Centralia, an aviation mechanic, was on a patio rooftop above three-story barracks when airplanes dove toward Ford Island and damaged 33 planes and several hangars at Hickam Field. He sought protection in a round concrete control tower, which was struck by bullets. He died Sept. 22, 2017, at 95.

Sixteen years ago, when we honored the local Rosie the Riveters and men who worked on the home front during the war, we asked people to share their recollections. Sarah Zopolos, of Chehalis, suggested we contact Hatsue Helen (Hirata) Yoshida, a Japanese American classmate who graduated from Centralia High School with her in 1941.

When I called, Yoshida told me that after graduation in May 1941, she left her host family of Christian missionaries and returned by ship to Honolulu, Hawaii, where her Japanese-born parents lived with their four younger children. She attended business school and helped her parents in their grocery store.

That Sunday morning, when the Japanese attacked, she stepped outside her parent’s shop and watched in horror as, a block away, an errant U.S. anti-aircraft shell destroyed a drugstore filled with Christmas decorations.

Not far away, her family’s relatives — the Ohtas — operated a bakery next to a Saimin shop that sold noodles. Kiyoko Ohta, 21, who had come back from Japan to marry, visited the bakery that morning to enjoy a cup of coffee with her sister-in-law, 19-year-old Hayako Ohta, and dote on Hayako’s 3-month-old daughter, Janet Yumiko Ohta. The two women had married brothers.

Suddenly, an incendiary bomb or shell exploded on the building. Hayako’s husband rushed inside the damaged building to save his family. He carried out Kiyoko, whose legs had been cut off, but couldn’t find his wife and baby.

All three died. Little Janet was the youngest person to die at Pearl Harbor.

Although one Japanese bomb landed in Honolulu’s industrial area, it killed nobody. Instead, misfired American anti-aircraft shells killed civilians and destroyed homes, cars and businesses.

Altogether, 68 civilians died in the Pearl Harbor attack, according to PearlHarbor.org and a fact sheet from the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. Other resources list civilian deaths at 49, primarily in Honolulu.

Yoshida said her relatives’ deaths shook her up so much she couldn’t even drink a glass of water that day. They didn’t know where to flee for safety — the mountains or the ocean.

“It was very scary for several days, you know,” she said. “We didn’t know where the bombs were going to fall.”

Flames destroyed 20 buildings in the retail district near her parent’s store on McCully Street. They kept their lights off that night, huddled in fear, and later painted their windows black. Others covered their roofs with tarpaper to block out all light.

Local officials declared martial law, instituted a 10 p.m. curfew and arrested 1,300 people, primarily first-generation immigrants from Japan in leadership roles. They closed Japanese schools and interned principals and teachers, storeowners and Buddhist monks and priests. They took radios, cameras, flashlights and heirloom swords from the Japanese Americans, which Yoshida said, “never came back to us.” They ordered Japanese Americans to comply with an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.

Yoshida said she was grateful to live in Hawaii, where she didn’t face as much discrimination as on the U.S. mainland. But Japanese Americans working for the military lost their jobs, and Yoshida said when she returned to business school in January, gas mask in hand, most of the Chinese and Korean students were absent. They had been hired to fill vacancies at Pearl Harbor.

At her family’s store, where she used to address her parents in Japanese, she began to call them Mom and Dad.

The day after the attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed Congress in a speech that resonated throughout the nation. “Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” Congress declared war on Japan, and three days later, Italy and Germany declared war on the United States. World War II raged across Europe until VE Day May 8, 1945, and in the Pacific until Emperor Hirohito announced the Japanese surrender Aug. 15.

Yoshida, who worked as a stenographer at a state hospital in Hawaii, died Aug. 8, 2017, at the age of 95.

We were blessed to have nearly 80 people share their recollections of the Depression, the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese internment camps, jobs in shipyards and aircraft plants, United Service Organization dances, and the glorious end to World War II four years later. Their recollections are preserved in “Life on the Home Front: Stories of those who worked, waited, and worried during WWII.” I’m glad we recorded their stories then … before they were lost to us forever.

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Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.