Thursday, December 07, 2006

Remembering December 7, 1941

BB NOTE: My family's ties to Hawaii remains strong. Besides the fact that I spent my adolescene growing up in Hawaii and graduated from Radford High School in Honolulu, my mother is buried at the National Cemetary of the Pacific at Punchbowl. In addition, my brother and his family have had several tours in Hawaii and feel as though it is their second (or could that be first?) home. But the ties reach further back, all the way back to December 7, 1941 when my grandfather was an officer aboard the USS Honolulu and stationed at Pearl Harbor.

My uncle, the retired RADM Robert H. Ailes, has graciously written today of his recollections of that day through the view of a six year old child. My father was eight. Both have not spoken very much of that day, except to tell me that their elementary school was bombed and they took my grandfather to the YMCA and dropped him off as the bombing continued and then my grandmother drove the three of them up into the mountains to the home of a family friend. When I lived in Hawaii we drove by the house where they lived on that fateful day.

I can't imagine what it must have been like for my grandmother to drive her husband to downtown Honolulu and drop him off and wonder if she'd ever see him again. I can't imagine what it must have been like for two small boys to see bombs and gunfire all around them as they fled to the mountains. But here is my uncle's story. He wrote it at the request of my uncle who lives in England and is working on a book about his family. Note: John IV is my father, also a retired naval officer.

Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941

You asked my recollections of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. I think John IV may have clearer recollections than mine since he was eight atthe time.

Here is what I recall.

First some background. I was six on December 7, 1941. My father, John W. Ailes III, (later RADM) was assigned to the light cruiser (6 inch main battery guns) Honolulu (CL-42) assigned to the US Fleet and stationeed in Hawaii as part of the redeployment in 1940 of the US Fleet from the west coast (Long Beach, California in the case of the Honolulu) to Hawaii. My mother, brother and I had followed Dad out to the islands by passenger ship in 1940 and settled in a small duplex in Waikaki.

The Honolulu was a new cruiser built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York. Dad was part of the commissioning crew (called a plank owner in Navy slang) and was assigned to the gunnery department, having just completed post graduate training in Annapolis in Ordnance and Gunnery.


I recall living in New York (Forest Hills) and Long Beach, California and sailing out to the Hawaiian islands in rough seas in which my brother and I thrived. Little did we know that our "sea legs" would be tested many times in our naval careers. The ship, a commercial passenger ship, tied up at Honolulu and we came ashore at the Aloha Tower where we were innudated with leis.

I started the first grade in September 1941 in Waikaki at Thomas Jefferson Elementary school. The building remained the last time I was in the islands though it is now an administrative building. Our duplex was a short walk to the beach which was easily accessible. Now the entire area is filled with high rise apartments and hotels. I recall visiting the beach frequently as well the zoo and the circus when it was in town.

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, Dad was home with us, We were awaken by the sound of gunfire. The folks turned on the radio and learned of the Japanese attack and the order for all military personel to return to their duty stations. At the time of the attack the Honolulu was moored at a shipyard pier in Pearl Harbor inboard I believe of the cruiser St Louis.

Dad bundled all of us in the family car and took us to the residence of a friend of the Ailes family (Herbert Ailes), the Walls who lived in a large house with extensive lawns and gardens on the hills above Waikaki next to Punaho High School. Dad then proceeded in the family car to Pearl Harbor and the Honolulu. Honolulu was damaged during the attack by a bomb (near miss?) though I don't believe there were any casualties on the ship.

From the front porch of the Wall's house we had a good view of Waikaki but couldn't see Pearl Harbor. We saw several fires in Waikaki that apprently were started by either spent shells or missfires fired at the attacking Japanese. I recall what I now know was the second wave of Japanese aircraft flying over the Wall's house heading west toward Pearl Harbor. Their "rising sun" markings were very clear to me.

I recall getting up early the next morning to watch flights of US aircraft fly in over Waikaki from the US west coast. It was a comforting feeling to observe reinforcements.

My recollections aren't too clear as to what happened between December 7th and March 1942 when we were "evacuated" on the passenger ship Wharton and sailed from Pearl Harbor to San Francisco in a convoy. Somehow we recovered the family car and returned to the duplex in Waikaki. Dad stayed on the Honolulu during most of the time. I recall visiting him Christmas Day and being impressed with his battle dress and 45 when he came down on the pier to see us.

The response to the attack by the local officials made quite an impression on me. Everyone was ordered to put up covers on the windows so light couldn't be seen after dark. Block wardens were assigned to check on this which wasn't very popular since the houses, without the cool island breezes, became very stuffy at night, (air conditioning hadn't been invented yet.)

Barbed wire was put up along the beaches. It wasn't very effective. John and I picked our way through it to go swimming. At Thomas Jefferson trenches were dug to be used if there was more bombing. These became very muddy as a result of the daily rain common in the islands. Of course little boys didn't mind but mothers did.

We departed Hawaii from Pearl Harbor in March 1942, the ship picking its way out from a Navy Yard pier along ships sunk or damaged on December 7, I recall the fire-blackened, twisted ships very clearly. I recall the trip to the US vividly. There were several battle-damaged ships in the convoy sailing to the west coast for repairs. Guns were test fired on the Wharton and Mom was kept on her toes keeping track of we two active boys.

Final Thoughts:

What the Japanese accomplished and how bold their attack was didn't sink in to me until I visited Pearl Harbor on the USS Brooke (FFG-1) in 1975 enroute from San Diego to the Western Pacific. I hadn't returned to the islands since 1942. Two things impressed me, First there was the Arizona memorial, a beautiful, dignified structure that I am sure Dad would be pleased with. Second we left Pearl Harbor and steamed west for over two weeks to the Phillippines, exemplifying the large distances in the Pacific Ocean and how far the Japanese traveled to attack. I now understand why Admiral Ike Kidd stressed with an obsession the preparedness of naval forces under his command. His Dad, also a Flag Officer, was killed on the Arizona on December 7th.

-RADM RH Ailes, USN, Ret.

BB NOTE: Click on the headline above and you can see a photo of the USS Honolulu moored at Aloha Tower, Honolulu, before the attack on Pearl Harbor.


kevin said...

Thank you BB for sharing this also thank your uncle for me.

These are errie reminders of the reality of our history books, not dates and facts but memories. My aunt grew up near London during and is old enough to remember the Battle of Britain. She also does not talk about it much, the closest was driving past the Pentagon October 2001 when they reopened Route 27, her only words were, "My God it looks like the Blitz."

Haunting connections beyond the news reel footage we have seen so many times.

clancy said...

BB--Thank you for sharing these thoughts and memories. Some of us remember well the gas rationing, meat rationing, sugar rationing, shoe rationing and the 45 mph national speed limit.

Could we do it today?

Bill said...

Thank you very much BB. I was born in 1947 in Peru. My parents took me home on leave with them for my first visit to 'Granny' in the North of England. We spent 3 months there and then returned to Peru. That was in 1950.
It wasn't until the 90s when my mum and dad died that I found some letters from Granny to my parents back in Lima. Some of these were dated about 1950 or 51 others earlier (I don't remember the exact years). But in her letters I read her thanks to my mother for the grated orange peel which my mother had dried and sent to my grandmother with which she flavoured cakes.
I didn't learn until many years later that rationing in England continued on into the early fifties least for poor folk like my grandparents.... five or six years after the war had ended.
One other memory. My parents told me that between 1939 and 1946 when my father was finally demobilized in the Middle East, my mother and father spent a cumulative time of seven months together.
Those are two of the 'minor' memories that have stuck with me of my parents' many stories and which, on December 7, (even though I am English) come back to me. No direct connection to Pearl Harbour ... but an important focus on an experience shared by all those who lived through the forties.

mdlawlib said...

What a wonderful post! Our country really did come together during those days. My dad as a young teenager made model airplanes to help teach pilots how to recognize enemy planes. Late in the war he was riding bikes with his friends and they came upon an enemy plane on an airfield in Brooklyn and showing off to his friends my dad identified it. Too bad the MPs were right there and wanted to know how this kid knew what it was! He got pulled in and had a time explaining how he had such classified information.