A Date With A Bombing

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Five minutes to eight! It was going to be a wonderful day. I had a date with Ens. Jim Watters to spend the day lazily exploring Oahu, stopping to swim wherever we wanted. Jim wasn’t coming for me until ten, so if I decided now what I was going to wear I could sleep an hour longer.

I had come to the islands from California right after school let out in June. My older sister, Jean, and her husband, Buzz (Ens. R. C. Lefever), were living in quarters on the Naval Air Station at Ford Island, and my parents had given me a trip to visit them after my first two years of college. I was slated to return to school in September, but when September rolled around I was having such a good time that I prevailed upon them to let me stay until Buzz’s orders arrived in January.

What a ball I had! Twenty years old and the only single girl on an island filled with naval aviators and officers from the Pacific Fleet. Today would be a typical example of how the days had gone. What was I going to wear?

My mind didn’t get as far as the closet door before I realized that something was wrong. There seemed to be an unusual amount of noise, and I heard the excited voices of my sister and her husband in the next room. Buzz had just returned from two weeks on Wake Island, and Jean was telling him that the explosions we heard were part of the local training exercise that had been going on all the past week. I heard Buzz shout, “The hell it is! It’s the Japs!” From the bedroom window he could see his Squadron VP-22 hangar in flames across the landing field.

The explosions were continuing and seemed to be coming closer to the house, but still I didn’t stir. My sister kept her clothes in my bedroom closet, and I lay bug-eyed watching her pull out a slack suit and put it on—only to realize that she’d forgotten to put on a girdle. Off came the slacks, on went the girdle, and back on went the slacks. Today I can still see her in that outfit, beige slacks and a coordinated top with a moss green cable-knit front.

It was my turn. I thumbed through the hangers and frantically wondered what one wore to a bombing. I have chuckled for years over my choice: a starched white eyelet-pique dress and red canvas sandals.

 

When the noise quieted down, my brother-in-law told us he would drive us to our designated bomb shelter. We sped down the road toward the new bachelor officers’ quarters (BOQ), the only steel-reinforced building on the island. The BOQ housed three hundred naval officers, and it was to be our home for the next three nights and four days.

Memories of the next half hour rush into confusion. Buzz drove on to his flaming hangar, and I can’t remember seeing him again for days. Jean and I, along with the women and children who lived on the “Mauka” (mountain) side of Ford Island, were herded into the windowless corridor of the first-floor bedroom wing.

There, bedlam prevailed. I can understand now the emotional noise made by worried and scared mothers and the commotion of frightened children, but at twenty I found the hysteria, praying, and singing nerve-racking. Soon Jean and I went to work for Capt. Dan Closser, the acting officer in charge of all the Marines on Ford Island. The Japanese right then were making their second strafing run on the island and we watched Dan, five-foot-few-inches of vigor, storm up the main stairway of the BOQ and haul down the eager armed men who were rushing up to the roof to shoot at the strafing planes. Their fire from the rooftop would have guided the Japanese pilots to a prime target on a return trip.

In short order, Dan had a veritable task force working in that BOQ. Perhaps it was an hour, I don’t remember, before the survivors of the attack began to stream in from the ships, and during that hour all available supplies had to be organized. From somewhere came hundreds of military cots to fill the lounges and hallways of the first floor. We volunteers were sent through the 150 rooms of the officers living in the building to gather bedding and clothes.

Men were dispatched to the station laundry on the other side of the island to bring back all the clothes there. They would be handed out to the men swimming to the island from the ships in the harbor and later channeled back to their owners through the laundry markings. Behind the counter of the reception area of the BOQ we hurriedly stockpiled underwear, socks, shoes, shirts, uniforms, civilian clothes, blankets, and bedspreads. The entire supply of cigarettes and candy bars from the BOQ “Cigar Mess” (store) was there for us to give out along with the limited amount of bottled water.

And then they started coming—by the hundreds and in all stages of undress. As the ships exploded, their fuel oil spread over the water, and men who were not thrown into the harbor by the force of the explosions had no choice but to jump overboard and swim to shore. When they reached the island they were covered with oil.

Eyes—big white eyes—stared out of blackened faces. We were seeing the uninjured and the less severely injured, those who could swim to shore and still walk to the BOQ. The oil ignited as it spread over the harbor, and many sailors had to swim through a sea of flames. We heard that the lawn in front of Adm. Patrick Bellinger’s house near battleship row was a mass of wounded and dying and that many of the men who climbed up the small bank from the water just lay down and died on the grass.