- Historic Sites
A Date With A Bombing
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
I kept frantically searching for faces I knew, but it was impossible to recognize anyone. Some time passed before a huge mass of oil pushed its way through to me and said, “Betty! Thank God, you’re alive! You look like an angel!” It was Ens. Joe Lightburn from the battleship California, and I immediately felt better about wearing that white dress. If it affected him in that way, maybe I gave some kind of encouragement to others in that teeming, frightened crowd.
Captain Dan made sure that the wounded were settled into semicomfortable places to rest until medical aid arrived. Behind the counter we passed out candy bars and cigarettes as fast as we could and filled very small paper cups with water for the many who asked for it. The men kept streaming in, crowding up to the counter. Often we had to light their cigarettes for them—their hands shook too violently to hold the match. For some we also held the cup of water.
Many men came to the counter and urgently asked for paper and pen. Some of them had been standing watch at the time of the attack, and it was their duty on board ship to make proper entries in the log. Now, with no ship and no logbook, they still felt obliged to report. Others just wanted to get it all down on paper. Each man started with the time and the date, but some never got any farther. One man stood at the counter for more than an hour. When we finally persuaded him to leave and get some rest, we saw that he had never finished his first sentence, which began, “My ship the U.S.S. Arizona was.…” All around us glassy, immobile eyes spelled s-h-o-c-k.
We gave out clothing like crazy. Our supply of shoes was quickly depleted, and few pairs really fit the feet that went into them. The young men walking patrol that night would come to the counter and say: “Please, ma’am, my feet are so cold. Could you let me have a pair of shoes?” When we told them that there were none, they would ask for additional socks. Then we ran out of socks.
That afternoon I bumped into my beach date, Jim Watters. We passed on the stairway of the BOQ, which was strewn with broken glass from the bullet holes in the stairwell windows. Jim said, “Great date, wasn’t it!”
All Sunday we had expected the Japanese to return. I was so convinced they’d be back that at odd times during the day I had rigged a bomb shelter out of a large steel-topped desk. It had a knee-hole area large enough for Jean and me and I kept piling various items on top of it that I thought might repel flying fragments. As night darkened the skies we heard the awful drone of airplane engines. One frightened finger pulled a trigger, inviting the outbreak of noisy, terrifying machine-gun fire. Instead of dashing for the security of the desk, I panicked and fled.
I ran from the counter through the swinging doors into the women and children’s shelter corridor and dived under one of the canvas cots that had been set up in the hallway. In the dark I lay there, scared to death, when suddenly I thought of my sister in the blacked-out entry with the huge glass windows of the BOQ facade staring at her. I wondered what in the world I was doing under that cot, and 1 ran as fast as I could down the dark hallway and back to the foyer. If I had stayed under that cot, I would have spared myself the memory of joining the crowd on the steps of the BOQ and cheering wildly as our gunners opened fire on planes flying overhead. We cheered and cheered as we watched a ball of fire fall into the bay, and I will never forget the sound of a telephone ringing and the agonized hush that followed the announcement that we were firing at our own planes.
Our work went on all night Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. We took turns falling into a dirty-linen cart for a twenty-minute break now and then. Ten thousand men from destroyed ships had come ashore onto Ford Island that Sunday. Many had lost everything they possessed. They had to be fed, clothed, and tended to physically and mentally. There was no Red Cross to come to our aid, no stores to sell even the most necessary items.
During the day we all strove to be considerate and to boost morale among the men as much as possible. Jean and I always wore fresh flowers in our hair, picked from the hibiscus bushes outside the BOQ. Of course, our attempts to be helpful sometimes failed miserably. Our hero, Dan Closser, trying desperately to comfort a dying sailor, put the wrong end of a lighted cigarette into the man’s mouth. The blackened lips whispered, “That’s all right, sir. I’m so burned now I couldn’t tell the difference.” Tuesday noon I cheerfully asked Joe Lightburn what he had been doing that morning. “What have I been doing?” he repeated in a dull, awful voice. “I have spent the morning identifying three hundred and fifty of my dead buddies from the California.”