Skip to main content


A Date With A Bombing

May 2024
8min read

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.

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.”

At dawn on Tuesday I watched the big front door of the BOQ slowly open. Into the foyer walked two strained and exhausted men, still in their flight suits. I gave a good second look to be sure, and rushed into the arms of Ens. Joe Garrett, who later became my husband. He and Ens. Forrest Todd, with only pistols aboard their patrol planes for defense, had aborted their mail-delivery mission at Johnston Island and searched for thirty hours for the Japanese carrier planes reportedly on their way to bomb Midway and Johnston islands. Joe and Forrest, leery of bringing their seaplanes in to land in the debris-littered harbor, had radioed headquarters that the planes over Barbers Point at exactly six o’clock in the morning would be theirs and to hold the fire! My husband says that his navigation and timing that night were the most motivated of his career.

By Wednesday evening both Jean and I were feeling tired and unattractive in our Sunday clothes. Leaving me to tend the counter, Jean went back to the quarters to change. As soon as she left, I received a frantic message that we had a long-distance call at the quarters. I sped off to join her. It seemed an eternity since I had left Quarters 111B on Sunday, and it must have seemed even longer to our parents, who since the first news flash had been trying to get in touch with their daughters.

Once we were back in the quarters, the prospects of a hot shower and a bed were too tempting to resist. Knowing that we were no longer really needed, we sent word back to the BOQ that we were retiring from duty.

Although the Ford Island dependents had top priority for evacuation to the mainland, we delayed our departure from Hawaii until Buzz headed out for the South Pacific, and it wasn’t until March that we boarded Pan American’s converted China Clipper for San Francisco. When we landed very early one morning, we felt a lifetime away from Pearl Harbor. Consequently, we were surprised to be ushered into the combined Naval and Army Intelligence and FBI office at the airport. There Jean and I were very clearly informed that we were not to say anything about what had happened to the United States Fleet or Pearl Harbor on December 7. We were admonished so strongly that we obeyed. My father told us years later that he was hurt to the quick that we didn’t even tell him what we had experienced.

“What have I been doing?” he repeated. “I have spent the morning identifying 350 of my dead buddies from the California ."

One February, twenty-five years later, my husband and I took two of our children to Hawaii. We drove around Ford Island and found the Utah rusting hull side up out in front of Quarters 11 IB. We took the Navy barge trip around Pearl Harbor and listened to the lecture given by the guide. And then I told my children what I remembered of that day, when I was the age of my daughter, Ginger, accompanying me that spring.

Readers are invited to submit their personal “brushes with history, ” for which our regular rates will be paid on acceptance. Unfortunately, we cannot correspond about or return submissions.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.