News From Pearl

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It was a clear, quiet Sunday morning. Dad was in the living room reading the Los Angeles Examiner and listening to the radio. Mother and I were in the kitchen discussing Christmas plans while I bathed my two-month-old daughter, Janice. I was trying to decide whether to mail my husband’s presents to him in Hawaii or hope he would be home for the holiday. He had been due for a discharge from the Navy in November but had been told he had to wait for his ship, the USS West Virginia , to return to the States.

Dad came to the door and said he hoped we wouldn’t be disappointed about missing our favorite radio programs; a tube had burned out, and he couldn’t get another one until the next day. Then he asked Mother to come into the living room. Busy with Janice, I paid no attention to his request.

A neighbor who was a nurse stopped by on her way to church. That wasn’t unusual either, because she had shown me how to take care of the baby. The telephone began to ring. Mother answered but didn’t talk long. My best friend, Theresa, came over. She had a problem with watery eyes, especially when she looked at Janice and when she helped me wrap some presents for Earl.

I was busy all day—so much company, so much to do. That night, although I felt uneasy, I slept.

Janice woke up early the next morning. I changed her and nursed her, and she went back to sleep. The unease I had felt the day before was growing stronger. I went out to get the paper. It wasn’t on the lawn. It wasn’t in the house. Was it the first time in years that it hadn’t come? I ran to the garage to check there and found the paper tucked away under the front seat of Dad’s car. As I tore off the rubber band, I saw the headlines VERY HEAVY LOSSES IN HAWAII and 2 U.S. WARSHIPS, 2 ENEMY AIR CARRIERS REPORTED AS SUNK .

I began to yell, using swearwords I didn’t even know I knew. My parents came outside and helped me into the house. Janice was awake, frightened and crying. My seven-year-old brother, David, was consoling her. I sat on the divan while Mother and Dad explained that headlines were often wrong, especially after a disaster. My fury began to fade, and I started saying that if there were only two survivors on that ship, Earl was one of them. I had to be strong for myself and especially for Janice. A deep coldness settled upon my emotions. I did not cry. I was determined that he was all right. Dad plugged the radio back in, admitting that the day before he had disconnected it, hoping to postpone my learning about the attack until after we heard from Earl. The broadcasts were confusing. Commentators had little hard information.

Both Monday and Wednesday brought letters from Earl saying he was sure he’d be home for Christmas, but they were dated before December 7. Now newscasters were certain the West Virginia was at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. The number of survivors was not known or was described as classified information. No messages arrived, good or bad.

Friday night at ten o’clock, as Mother, her friend Nora, Theresa, and 1 were sitting at the dining-room table drinking tea, we heard the rattle, bang, and clatter of the noisiest Model T Ford in town. It belonged to the man who delivered telegrams, and he stopped in front of our house. I answered the door but could not bring myself to take the message, even though he insisted it was good news. Mother took the telegram and read, EVERYTHING OK. WESTER WOOD . By thenseveral neighbors who recognized the Ford had come over, including two registered nurses prepared to revive me. None of us knew who Wester Wood was, but at that moment he was our best friend in the world.

A few days later a postcard came from Earl. “Merry Christmas,” it said. It contained no news, but it was dated after the attack, so I knew he was all right.

Some weeks later, I learned what had happened. Earl was a baker aboard the ship, and he’d been up all night Saturday, December 6, making bread and pies for Sunday’s meals. When his work was done, he stopped by the radio shack (he had become interested in how messages were decoded). The radio was quiet that morning, so he left after an hour or so. He met a friend on deck, and they began to watch a vast number of planes approaching Pearl Harbor. They thought the Army must be holding a major exercise—until torpedoes and bombs started to drop. The West Virginia took several torpedoes and eventually began to sink. When it was time to abandon ship, the men had two choices: dive into water ablaze with burning oil, or try to get to the USS Tennessee , which was tied up between their ship and the dock. Earl decided against the flames and leaped to the Tennessee and from there to shore. Afterward, he was astounded that he had been able to jump so far. He came home on February 8 and transferred to the USS San Juan . By July he was back in the Pacific and in combat.

In 1986 I flew to Hawaii with my husband, and as the plane approached the airport in Honolulu, the pilot announced that we would fly over Pearl Harbor. Earl described what had happened that day, and all the tears that I had not cried in 1941 began to flow.