|Legend has it, the Japanese bombed and strafed civilians on Hawaii December 7th, 1941. Wartime censors prevented
the real story of this "battle" from being known. The truth is a tale of confusion, blind anger and a lot of
fire-power; a story of rumors and tragic mistakes.
"What goes up, must come down" is the saying. Look at Pearl Harbor's geography and location of the ships and
imagine you are shooting at planes coming in low. Where will your shells go when they miss your target? The
standard Navy anti-aircraft shell was a 5-inch projectile with a fuse to be set by the crew. Attacking planes
at 400 ft? Set the fuse for 400 feet and it will explode at that level. In the early confusion, many Navy
personnel forgot to set the fuses on AA shells and in many cases fusing was useless as Fuchida's force attacked at wave-top
level with torpedo planes. An un-fused shell will explode on contact with a plane (or a house or a car).
Let me first defend our service men and explain if one has even been shot at, the focus of return fire is
exclusively the target, not what's behind it. Inexperienced, scared sailors and army
personnel had a bad case of "tunnel-vision" and should be forgiven for wild shooting. Battle-hardened veterans knew better. A "tin-can man"
once told me that after Leyte Gulf he could check fusing, calculate aim, fire rapidly, and wonder what was for
dinner all at the same time!
Civilians panicked when 5-inch shells exploded in streets and yards. Thousands took to their cars to flee to the
Highlands. Residents of the "Heights," fearing enemy paratroopers, fled to Honolulu. Streets soon grid-locked
with two-way traffic. Shells landed amid stalled automobiles, increasing panic. Fire engines and ambulances
raced along sidewalks and yards desperately attempting to reach their destination. Civilians with hunting rifles
stood in roads, shooting upwards. The noise of rifles and explosions, mingled with the sound of screams, combined
to push the panic level higher. Water mains broke, sending geysers into the air, adding to the surrealistic
atmosphere. Houses exploded, sending many outdoors, dragging
their furniture with them. At the same time, many ran indoors fearing shrapnel. Others grabbed their children, blindly looking for shelter. No place seemed safe.
As Japanese planes flew low over Honolulu, shells and shrapnel were everywhere. Many civilians assumed that
Japanese were responsible, others knew better. Remember the code of "Bushido" inherent in Japanese pilots -- they
weren't going to waste their bombs and bullets on civilians (or oil tanks for that matter) when juicy targets such
as battleships and cruiser awaited. To be sure, some did strafe civilians, but 90% of reported civilian bombing
came from us. Friendly fir or not, the origin mattered little when people were suddenly torn apart around you.
When the attack ended that morning, firing erupted continually throughout the day. Someone shoots at a plane (ours),
then everyone joins in. Soon Pearl Harbor was again erupting in AA fire-starting the cycle of panic all over again.
Then darkness fell and the real chaos began.
It started with the rumors. Most believed the attack a prelude to invasion. The Navy deposited heavily armed,
jittery sailors, recently blasted into homelessness, onto remote island "posts." They saw "Japs everywhere." The
"Japs" were often marine and army sentries thinking the same. We shot at ourselves all night, the darkness made
worse by the enforced black-out. Native Hawaiians suddenly looked like enemy paratroopers. Many were tragically
shot. Then there is the dark secret of Pearl Harbor -- the vengeance taken upon the large Japanese population.
The local Japanese soon learned to hide. It wasn't safe for anyone to venture out in the dark. Trees were being
shot at. Sentry ears, straining in the amplified silence, challenged "night noises" previously ignored. Many of
the Islands Japanese population knew no English, and when "captured" were assumed the enemy. A
Syracuse New York Marine veteran told me of one hapless Japanese, shot on the beach and buried in the sand with his legs sticking out.
When a young Lieutenant said "you can't do that," he replied, "he's a god-damn Jap -- you dig him out!" Or was he a
gardener in a jump suit?
One shot in the dark would set off a chain reaction of shooting, leading to repeated reports of invasion. Most island
radios received police bands. Rumors started by the military were passed to civilians who reported them to the police.
Police unwittingly broadcast it on their system, spiraling the rumors to more
natives. Japanese saboteurs were reported to have poisoned
reservoir; they were landing off Barbers Point. Paratroopers were dropping on St.
Louis Heights and Nuuanu Valley, Grovers Mill New Jersey after Orsen Welles "War of the Worlds" broadcast has some
idea of Honolulu's suffering, but Oahu had more fire-power and blood. The true wonder of this night is more weren't
killed. Those who died were simply added to a casualty list - indirect victims of the Japanese attack.
In some ways Americans have not changed much. Small acts of revenge took place that night. One veteran recalled
shooting holes into a hated officer's Quonset hut ceiling during the confusion. Every time it rained at night
this Lout was sure to get wet! Others were sent to guard the meat lockers of the beached USS Nevada. Every time
shooting erupted, they emptied the clips of their assigned weapons. Being new to them, they thought the sound of
Thompson submachine guns and scatter shotguns to be "cool-dadio." Some looters from the USS Tennessee crawled
over to the abandoned, sunken West Virginia, and broke
into lockers. This caused so much hard feeling that sailors
from these two ships clashed throughout the war, "Hey, you're from the Tennessee? I owe you this [sound of a fist]."
Oil-soaked sailors were sent to officer's quarters after losing their ships. Here they would shower and put on
fresh clothing. Officers uniforms disappeared, along with a few wallets. That some would take advantage of a
bad situation is as old as civilization.
The "Battle of Honolulu" is a seldom mentioned subject. With the benefit of hindsight and a little knowledge of
human nature, one can understand the chaos of December 7th and 8th. My father lived through it, and his description
is apt, "Son it was a cluster-fuck of the first order!"
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