With today being the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, you’re no doubt reaching overload on stories commemorating the event. I’m hoping you can indulge me for a few minutes while I share just one more: our family’s.
My grandfather, Philip Gerhing, was a career Navy man. He enlisted in 1931, shortly after graduating from high school, remained on active duty until 1952, and then worked for the Navy as a civilian until his eventual retirement in the early 1970s. Growing up, my grandparents’ house was a trove of artwork and knickknacks that he’d brought home from all over the world (especially the far East).
In December of 1941, he was stationed at Pearl Harbor and serving as a “pharmacist’s mate.” My understanding is that he worked in the base hospital, assisting those who ran the pharmacy. He and my grandmother had three kids at the time: my mother (a few months shy of her fourth birthday), and her two brothers (aged five and two-and-a-half). My grandmother and the kids were living on the base with him, having come out to Hawaii on a civilian passenger ship to join him in early July.
Shortly before 8 am, seventy-five years ago, my grandfather had just finished an overnight shift at the base hospital. He was waiting for a shuttle to take him home, when he heard the drone of a large number of low-flying aircraft. He looked up, and said his first thought was: “Somebody sure did a sloppy job of painting those planes!” Of course, a moment later, when the bombs began dropping, he realized that the “sloppy paint” patterns were Japanese rising sun emblems.
Given that he was on his way home, and home wasn’t far, he continued on. He stayed at the house for just long enough to make sure his family was alright — and then went straight back to work. He seldom talked about what he did the rest of that day, but it generally involved assisting the medical staff in treating the wounded. My mother recalls him talking about being inside, and looking up, and noticing that large chunks of the building were missing.
Meanwhile, back home, my grandmother had three small kids to protect — plus some neighbor kids, who happened to be over. She pushed a large sofa in front of the window, and tried to keep the children entertained in the midst of the attack. Bombs were falling all over the neighborhood, as the family housing units were literally right on the base. Had so many of the bombs not been duds, the civilian death toll would have been much higher. One bomb in particular landed on the house next door to my grandparents’ house; had it gone off, there was apparently enough ordinance to level the block.
One thing that both of my grandparents told me: the Japanese planes were coming in so low, they could see the faces of the pilots. By far the most disconcerting part is that many of the pilots were looking down at them and smiling as they dropped their deadly payloads.
My mother, being just three years old at the time, has only hazy memories from that day — and my grandparents didn’t talk a lot about it. But for me, while growing up, having had family at Pearl Harbor personalized the event in a way that a history book could never do. And what’s really cool is that when the attack was over, my grandparents gathered up a collection of small artifacts (mostly shrapnel and parachute fragments). My mother had a small box with these historical souvenirs, and as a kid I remember being in awe every time she would bring it out. I became a junior Pearl Harbor buff, and read everything I could about the event.
There’s another chapter to the Pearl Harbor story, which is seldom discussed: what happened to the servicemen’s families afterwards. With a war now underway, and with the assumption that Hawaii itself would be a battleground, the Navy wanted to minimize the number of civilians in the area. In the weeks after the “day which will live in infamy,” the women and children were loaded on passenger ships and evacuated to the mainland. The journey took upwards of a week, and for my grandmother it was a nightmare. Their ship was packed with women and small children, beyond its typical carrying capacity. The kids had very little to do, and the mothers were afraid to let them simply run around; it would be too easy to get lost or fall overboard. My grandmother ended up tethering her three kids together, so she could keep better track of them.
I never got all the details from her, but by all accounts it was an absolute nightmare of a trip. What made it even worse was the sense that they were sitting ducks, alone on this boat out in the middle of the ocean, days from anywhere. There were no naval escort ships. There were no patrol aircraft. The passenger ship of course had no anti-aircraft guns or other defenses. Everyone was fully expecting Japanese forces to materialize on the horizon, and send them to the bottom of the ocean.
This article has a nice summary of the civilian evacuation. What’s interesting is that the ship mentioned in the article, the S.S. Lurline, was the one my grandmother and her kids sailed on to get to Hawaii six months earlier. (I know they weren’t on it with the subject of this article, going back to the mainland, because they had no destroyer escort like is mentioned in the article.)
As a palate cleanser, I’ll leave you with this wonderful human interest story, about the oldest known Pearl Harbor survivor who was on active duty that day. He’s 104, and a couple of years ago resolved to keep himself in good enough shape to not only live to see the 75th anniversary, but to be strong enough to make the trip to Hawaii for today’s ceremonies:
He’s two years younger than my grandfather. Grandpa kept himself in incredible shape, and didn’t pass away until a few months short of his 95th birthday, but to my knowledge never went back to Hawaii for any of the commemorations. However, I’m sure my grandfather will be there in spirit with everyone today.