The night before the war started


Rose Acker recalls her life in Hawaii

December 06, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

It was the last Saturday night in a world that was about to be suddenly and irrevocably changed by the agony and death of war.

Rose Acker recalls Dec. 6, 1941, as a balmy Saturday night in Hawaii, not untypical weather for that time of the year.

She and her husband, James Mandris, an architect, always played bridge with several other couples on Saturday nights at tables set up in the living room of their small white cottage.

They resided on Spencer Street in the Makiki neighborhood in the foothills above Honolulu, where they had a clear view of Pearl Harbor, some nine miles away, and the naval vessels that rode at anchor.

Her husband, who was born and raised in Annapolis, graduated from Catholic University of America and the Johns Hopkins University, where he had studied engineering.

He had been recruited by the federal government in 1939 and sent to Pearl Harbor to help design Pacific bases for the Navy.

Acker, a youthful 83 with sparkling blue eyes and blond hair, lives at Blakehurst Retirement Community in Towson. She'd rather bound up the stairs than wait for elevators, and she confesses that she still likes a game of poker at least one night a week.

Acker was born Rose Paris in Baltimore and spent her early years on Eutaw Place. She lived for several years in Toronto before returning to Baltimore and graduating from Western High School. She also attended the Bard Avon secretarial school and took Spanish courses.

"Jim called me on the phone one day and said, `Come to Hawaii and let's get married,'" Acker recalled the other day.

"It was a four-day train trip from Baltimore to San Francisco, and then I boarded the Matson Lines' S.S. Monterey. When I left Baltimore, I weighed 100 pounds, and because I was seasick during most of the four-day voyage, I only weighed 94 ... when I landed at Honolulu," Acker said with a laugh. "And when I finally appeared for dinner that last night in the ship's dining saloon, everyone stood and applauded what had previously been my empty chair."

Married on Aug. 27, 1940, Acker quickly settled into marriage and the social life that Honolulu offered.

"Pre-war life in Hawaii was very genteel. I played bridge and went to the country club. We liked dining at Chez Paree, which was patronized by important people who had their own tables. It was a very high-class establishment."

Still, there was talk of impending war, and certain precautions had been taken, including the digging of a trench in front of the couple's house, where they were to take shelter in the event of an air raid.

After completing their bridge game on Dec. 6, 1941, the couple turned in for the night. Early the next morning, Acker heard the screams of a neighbor. It was a little before 8 a.m. as Japanese planes roared overhead and the attack on Pearl Harbor began.

"She said, `Rose, James, get up! Look out. We're being bombed,'" Acker recalled. "We went out and saw the smoke rising above Pearl Harbor. My husband raced inside, got dressed and then drove to town. He later said his legs were shaking all the way as he saw the massive destruction."

"I was terrified. I was 21 years old and this was extremely traumatic," she added.

Over the radio came requests for people to remain calm. All military personnel were to return to their stations. A curfew was imposed as well as a blackout once nightfall came. Gas masks were distributed and were to be worn, she recalled.

Acker knew her mother in Baltimore would worry once news of the attack reached the mainland, so she decided to violate the curfew and risk arrest to reach the Western Union office in downtown Honolulu.

She carefully tucked a $5 bill into her pants and set out along darkened roads.

"It was the most daring thing I've ever done," she recalled.

On her journey, she heard something and parted the thick roadside foliage.

"I saw two green trucks full of dead sailors. I got sick. I still have nightmares all these years later ... . They were such young men."

Her telegram informing her mother that she and her husband were "fine" was dated Dec. 7, 1941. It took three days before it was delivered in Baltimore.

"The thing we worried about after the initial bombing was would they come back. Everyone feared another attack, and this went on for days. We felt very vulnerable," said Acker, who moved in with a neighbor who had taken in 30 women and children from Hickam Field.

She remained in Hawaii until late 1942, working as a secretary for the Navy. Her voyage home aboard a troop transport to San Francisco took 11 days as the ship zigzagged across the Pacific to avoid detection by enemy submarines.

"The ship ran out of food and we were served peas and pineapple for all three meals. And for 40 years I wouldn't eat either one of them," Acker said.

After several days at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco, she took a train to Baltimore. She was reunited with her husband at the end of 1942.

James Mandris died in 1963 while playing bridge. He was 43. Her second husband was Travis Acker, who died in 1983.

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