Memories Of Dec. 7 And Aftermath

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - December 14, 2011
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As I compose this column on Pearl Harbor Day 2011, my thoughts go back exactly 70 years. I was lying on the living room carpet in my grandparents’ farmhouse just beyond the suburbs of Modesto, Calif. I was enjoying my favorite Sunday comic strip, the Katzenjammer Kids.

Grandpa Coffee was reading the newspaper with his feet propped up toward the oil heater, Grandma was in the kitchen cleaning up after breakfast. Uncle Willie was out in the driveway working on his 1940 Ford while listening to its radio.

Suddenly, Willy comes running up onto the front porch and shouts through the screen door; “Turn on the radio! Turn on the radio! The Japs have just bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii!”

Grandpa jumped to the big old Motorola standing in the corner of the living room “A two-hour ‘sneak attack’ ... hundreds of Japanese dive bombers and torpedo planes ... more than 3,000 American casualties!”

The next day we all listened to President Roosevelt’s ominous “Day of Infamy” speech and his Declaration of War against Japan and the other axis powers and our entry into World War II and I sensed my small-town, first-grade life was about to change.

Over the next four years, my dad, who was classified 4-F for physical disabilities and wouldn’t be drafted, left his job at a local lumberyard and took a job with a large defense construction company. My mom and I followed him to Reno, Nev., where he spent each week in the northern Nevada desert where, as I was shocked to realize decades later, his company was building the internment camps for the American Japanese. We then moved to Oakland, where, because of the acute wartime housing shortage, we lived for months in a cramped apartment with my other grandparents. My mom’s dad had been a lineman for PG&E in Modesto but was now an electrician for Henry J Kaiser, who was mass producing “Liberty Ships” for the war effort. By 1943, Kaiser yards were turning out an average of three ships per day. We lived in the Oakland/San Francisco Bay area for the duration.

All through my youth, Pearl Harbor was an exotic name conjuring up images of pearl divers and giant clams and tropical fantasies. How could I have had the slightest clue that 70 years later I might look upon this wondrous place each day from my own lanai here in Aiea? Many of us have seen a the vintage photo of the actual attack taken from exactly this same spot the old Aiea mill in the foreground, flames and smoke pouring up from the stricken warships, Japanese planes in a sky black with anti-aircraft bursts. My older neighbors have been generous with their recollections of that day all were surprised at how loud the engines were of the enemy aircraft screaming across their rooftops as they set up their strafing and torpedo runs. Many recall that Aiea Heights road was a straight run up the hill from the harbor and made a good lineup reference for the Japanese pilots (the curves were added later for the safety of autos).

As devastating as it was, the Japanese attack could have been much worse if 1) Admiral Yamamoto had not cancelled the planned third wave of the attack. 2) The Japanese had bombed the vulnerable fuelstorage tanks and the shipyard itself, thereby precluding the rapid repair of damaged ships and rapid recovery of warfighting capability. 3) The Japanese had attacked on a weekday morning when most personnel would have been aboard their ships, thereby inflicting even greater casualties.

This morning, at 7:50, I watched the opening of the 70th anniversary ceremony with the low pass of four new Hawaii Air National Guard F-22 aircraft in close formation, followed by the opening of the Ford Island causeway to allow the Guided Missile Destroyer USS Chung-Hoon (her crew in white uniforms manning the rail) to complete her circumnavigation of Ford Island and then swing close aboard the visitor center viewing stand opposite Arizona Memorial to salute the Pearl Harbor survivors there attending their last formal reunion.

And the moral of this column? Don’t presume to know where you will be in 70 years!

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