The day bombs ended an idyll Anniversary: Those who were at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked 56 years ago remember the surprise, the horror and the lives turned upside down.

December 07, 1997|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,SUN STAFF

For young women like Mary Tate Messec and Mary Anne Knell, life in prewar Hawaii was idyllic -- beautiful islands with a wonderful climate, magnificent beaches and lots of soldiers and sailors to date.

"There were 400 men to every woman, it was great," Messec recalls.

The idyll ended on a sunny Sunday morning, just before 8 o'clock Dec. 7, 1941. The two women, both Baltimoreans but then unknown to each other, watched in horror as Japanese airplanes bombed and strafed Kaneohe Naval Air Station, across Oahu Island from Pearl Harbor, where the Pacific Fleet was the main target of the sneak attack.

"The whole world changed that day," says Knell, 80, who was working in Honolulu then and now lives at the Charlestown Retirement Community, as does Messec.

The attack was directed at the armed forces: 2,335 were killed and 1,143 wounded. But civilians fell, too: 68 dead and 35 wounded.

For Americans, it was the opening salvo of World War II, dragging Americans into the global conflict that had engulfed Europe and Asia.

By the time Germany and Japan surrendered in 1945, American military fatalities numbered 292,131. In addition, 11,324 merchant mariners had lost their lives. Worldwide, nearly 15 million were killed in battle, and an estimated 38.5 million civilians died.

Messec, who was visiting her naval aviator brother, William, and his bride, Helene, at Kailua, near Kaneohe, recalled that morning that brought Americans face-to-face with the war.

"We awakened and saw all the black smoke and airplanes diving. And the radio was saying, 'This is real; this is no joke,' " Messec says.

"We saw an American plane that had gotten off from Bellows Field being attacked by three [Japanese] Zeros," Messec says. "We just stood with our mouths wide open. Then the American plane was shot down, about a mile away. I wanted to go down to help, but no one would let me go."

A friendship is born

A week later she met Knell and they began a friendship that continues today.

"I missed the first wave of planes because I was in church and the Hawaiian women's choir was singing so beautifully we couldn't hear a thing," Knell says, "but the second and third waves I saw."

As she drove back to her boarding house, Knell recalls, "One plane came over at treetop level. I saw the pilot's head and his goggles and the rising-sun emblem under his wings. He held his fire or I wouldn't be here today, but he shot up a car down the road."

Back in Honolulu, she says, "I spent the night with a friend at Diamond Head, watching the fires burning at Pearl Harbor. They burned all night. It was terrible."

The military was as surprised as the civilians. Veterans such as retired Army Col. George F. Carter, 80, of Timonium say they thought the difficulties between the United States and Japan would be resolved diplomatically.

Carter, an artillery lieutenant, was dressing for church in the officers' quarters at Schofield Barracks "when I heard the noise -- it was more than a roar -- of a diving aircraft and then a big boom. 'He's crashed!' another officer yelled. We thought it was a pilot who was showing off and had crashed."

Rushing to the veranda, "we saw this big column of smoke from Wheeler Field. All of a sudden this dive bomber was coming right down the parade ground at us, 200 feet up; there were the big red balls painted on the wings," he recalls.

The Japanese were dive-bombing Wheeler Field, the main fighter plane base. They came out of their dives and strafed the barracks.

"They were firing long bursts, too, using up their ammunition for the flight back to their carriers," says Carter. "I've never been as surprised at anything, before or since, as that attack."

The destruction of the ships compounded his horror.

"We could see Pearl Harbor, but at first we didn't know what had happened there," Carter says. "The [battleship] Arizona burned for days. Seeing the ships burning was a real shock to me; I'd never seen a ship burn before. I had been on most of them, and I had personal friends on those ships."

The attack turned life in Hawaii upside down. The military set up defenses everywhere; authorities imposed martial law, a blackout and a curfew that began at 6 p.m.

Walter S. Gorsuch, 81, of Aberdeen was a gunner's mate on the USS Conyingham, one of five destroyers alongside the tender USS Whitney.

Gorsuch says he was thinking about breakfast when a boatswain's mate ran in shouting, "Get some damn ammo."

The Conyingham's log notes: "0630 received the following provisions ice cream -- 6 gals. 0755 Japanese planes commenced bombing Pearl Harbor. Held general quarters, manned all guns, commenced breaking out powder."

4 planes shot down

The ship's log says the five ships shot down four enemy planes. One they missed dropped the bomb that ignited the explosion that sank the USS Arizona, the hulk of which lies beside Ford Island with 1,177 crew members aboard, Gorsuch says.

Looking back 56 years, Gorsuch says quietly, "It was quite a day."

Confusion reigned after the attack, says Samuel R. Hazlegrove, 81, of Owings Mills, who was a corporal in the 25th Infantry Division's 8th Field Artillery.

Hazlegrove had just returned to Schofield Barracks from Honolulu when the planes appeared.

"They came in over the barracks," he recalls. "They just popped up over the tops of the buildings. All the small arms and guns were locked up, so we couldn't shoot back.

"Pearl Harbor remains my most vivid memory, especially those planes coming over; you could see the whole plane at one time, they were that close."

The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association will conduct its annual memorial service at 11 a.m. today on board the Coast Guard cutter Roger B. Taney at the Inner Harbor. The Taney is believed to be one of the two surviving vessels that were at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack.

Pub Date: 12/07/97

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