Waiting for the Morning Tide

ERNEST B. FURGURSON

December 06, 1991|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON | ERNEST B. FURGURSON,Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- From five miles off the entrance to Pearl Harbor, only the silhouette of Oahu's mountains was visible against the pre-dawn sky. There was no blackout; the lights of ships, of airports, of streets running east toward Honolulu twinkled as our vessel rose and fell on the gentle swell, waiting for the morning tide . . .

All the Pearl Harbor memoirs that have flooded the American scene this week concentrate on the air strike -- the astonishment of those looking up at the low-flying bombers, the satisfaction of the Japanese pilots at achieving surprise. I have seen none telling what the objective looked like to enemy submarines approaching by sea, which is the way I first saw it.

Thirteen years after that December disaster, our regiment had ,, sailed on secret orders from Kobe, Japan. Only a few of us knew our destination: many thought we were headed for Indochina, where the French were besieged at Dienbienphu. When the convoy was at sea, the commanding officer was pleased to announce that our next home would be Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii.

The trip took 13 days, two of them in the middle of a typhoon that ripped some of our landing craft overboard. Not even seasickness could wipe out our anticipation. The night before our arrival, a Honolulu radio station broadcast a special program, ''Welcome, 4th Marines,'' and played ''Aloha Oe'' coming and going. I couldn't sleep. About 3 a.m., I went on deck to wait for dawn. The first thing that struck me, that far offshore, was the smell of flowers. At that moment, I fell in love with Hawaii.

As we sailed in just after dawn, past Ford Island, I couldn't guess how many aboard were thinking as I was about what had happened there before. And my attention quickly shifted when we tied up to a pier where hula girls were dancing to ''Aloha Oe.''

The Japanese submarines trying to sneak into Pearl that Sunday in 1941 were not greeted quite as warmly. Before the enemy carrier planes arrived, the subs were attacked by U.S. destroyers, but the resulting warning never reached the unprepared fleet.

When we arrived, I was an operations officer, addicted to maps, and my additional duty was as regimental historian. Later, with a rifle company, I traipsed the hills and beaches of the windward ZTC side. Every operations order I wrote, every training exercise reminded me of something that had happened that December 7.

As soon as I could arrange it, I borrowed Dave Riley's beat-up '41 Ford and drove around past the Blowhole and Diamond Head, to Honolulu airport to meet my wife and the son I had never seen. From our garage apartment on Kaneohe Bay Drive, we could watch the bay change shade from deep green to pale blue to almost yellow as it crossed the coral reefs.

The air station at Kaneohe itself had been a key target for the raiders, to eliminate interference with their main strike against the fleet at Pearl. On the runways where Marine Banshee jets shrieked in our time, antique Navy fighters had been caught on the ground by the Japanese.

From Kahuku Point, where soldiers operating a new-fangled device called radar had spotted the approaching Japanese aircraft, our company marched 35 miles one day in the rain, back to Kaneohe Bay. The other way, we ran small-scale infantry exercises at Bellows Field, which had been an auxiliary Air Corps strip hit by the Japanese -- and which bordered Waimanolo beach, the best I ever trod on.

From Nuuanu Pali, the pass in the Koolau range between the windward and leeward sides of Oahu, we wondered at the view across the northern coast to the curving horizon, beyond which the Japanese carriers had launched their planes. Some of the attackers had continued around Makapuu Point to come at Pearl from the east, others had banked past abrupt Olomano Peak, to knife through the pass.

At Honolulu harbor, we sometimes partied with departing passengers and pretended we were going with them as the Lurline sailed for the States. On the beach at Waikiki, servicemen on liberty traditionally had sipped drinks beneath the banyan tree at the Moana Hotel. We did, too. We dined at the Cannon Club on Diamond Head, looking back across Honolulu and Pearl Harbor, little changed in those pre-jet days from what raiding fliers had seen in 1941.

And at Ewa, beside the entrance to Pearl, the butts of the rifle range paralleled the beach. Wild rounds fell into the sea, out toward where I had first seen and smelled Hawaii. There lay a few unlucky Japanese submariners, their mission hardly remembered, their deaths eventually just as futile as the great air raid on Pearl Harbor.

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