Recollections of Pearl Harbor, 1981-84

By Sandi Schmidt (Bubbles) on December 7, 2010

This is strictly off the cuff, probably rift with errors, but I was compelled to write it this morning....December 7th.... And although it only took an hour to write, it took two hours to find two photos to accompany it.

We arrived in Honolulu the summer of 1981.  After looking at houses around the island for a couple of weeks, we decided to live on base at Hickam, AFB.  We had never lived on base before.   We were able to choose from a few houses that were soon to be available.  We liked a two story duplex on Beard Ave, a couple of blocks from Pearl Harbor.  It would be two months before we could actually move in, so we had to tough it out on the beach at Waikiki.

One of the first tourist things we did was go to the USS Arizona Memorial.  I still remember disembarking from the launch and seeing oil still floating to the surface from that sunken ship after all those years.  What I expected would be a quiet, reflective place, instead was bustling with tourists snapping photos of their smiling and laughing groups.  I was disappointed that there wasn’t more respect for all those souls still entombed directly below where we were standing.

We later learned from another couple at the hotel there was another tour for military families that left from Pearl Harbor.  We signed up for it and after a short film depicting the unvarnished story of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, we boarded a launch that took us past the Arizona and out into the harbor to where the other ships had been sunk.  The guide was interesting and informative.  Our group was quiet and respectful.  When we had guests come from the Mainland (and we had plenty in those three years), we would always try to book them on one of the Navy’s tours.

My husband was a pilot and worked in the PACAF (Pacific Air Force) building in the middle of Hickam.  The thick outer concrete walls of the building are still covered with bullet pock marks from the strafing of Japanese planes.  There was a movement to have those filled and covered while we were stationed there...so as not to offend visitors from Japan. It didn’t go over very well and was dropped, as far as I know.

2010-12-07/Bubbles/4f2228

We moved into our house a little early.  Tired of living in a hotel (can you believe I said that), I offered to paint the inside of our house myself so we could get in before school started.  It didn’t take us long to see those familiar pock marks in one of the front upstairs bedroom walls directly across from the windows. They had been filled, but the indentions were still very visible.  We could just imagine the plane flying low toward the harbor directly behind our house, and the pilot beginning his descent to unload his bullets at anything still floating on the water.

A few months after moving in, our neighbor across the street mentioned that a frail little gray  haired lady had shown up at her door and shyly asked if she’d mind letting her see the inside of her house.  The lady explained that she had hidden in a hall closet during the attack, terrified and not knowing if her husband was alive, for almost two days.  I always hoped someone would come to our house so we could hear their story, but our pock marks remained a mystery.

We were friends with a couple who were friends with the beverage distributor for the military clubs through out the island.  We got to tag along on some great galas, wine tastings, etc.  One Fourth of July, the distributor invited us all on a cruise from Waikiki, winding into Pearl Harbor and out again to Waikiki to watch the fireworks. The boat was large and packed with his friends and clients enjoying the band.  Lots of dancing, eating, and drinking (he was a liquor distributor after all).  It was nearing dusk when we entered the mouth of the harbor.  As we got further in, I became more and more uncomfortable with the band blaring as we neared the memorials.  Our host spotted me by the railing and asked if something was wrong, that I didn’t look like I was enjoying myself. And I tried to tactfully express that I was just being respectful as we passed the sunken ships (as my husband probably sucked in his breath).  I hadn’t given it a thought that our host was Japanese/Hawaiian.  It wouldn’t have made any difference, anyway.  He put his hand on my shoulder for just a second, then walked away, and the band stopped.  It got very quiet, most people started moving toward the railings, and for a few minutes all we heard was the sound of the engine and the boat slicing through the water.  The boat turned around headed back out of the harbor to Waikiki, the band began to play again, and we watched the fireworks from a spectacular vantage spot on the ocean.  I’ll never forget his kind responsiveness.  He could have as easily....just walked away.

We happened to be at the Officers Club early one Friday evening when a Navy battle ship entered the harbor.   Everyone was sitting outside on the grounds of the O’ Club, which was also at the mouth of the harbor.  As the ship drew close enough, we could see the sailors in their white uniforms, at attention, spaced along the railings.  With hardly a word, all the Air Force officers, about 75, moved toward the edge of the harbor, and as the ship passed, they all saluted in unison.  It was a very moving sight.

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When we got back to Austin, we became friends with a couple who had lived at Wheeler AFB on Ohau during the attack.  He never talked too much about his experiences, but she told me she opened her door that morning to see a very young man holding a gun, covered in blood, crying and shivering on her door step.  She asked him to come into the house and he refused saying he was there to protect her.  She asked if he was injured because of the blood.  He said he and his friend were eating in the cafeteria when it was bombed.  His friend died in his arms, and then he was ordered to go to the housing area to protect the families there.  After the initial attack, the wives and families were sent back to the Mainland.  She had a car and took three other wives across the country after the ship landed.  She remained in San Antonio until her husband could come home from the war.  She could remember the tiniest of details about that day.  Sadly her husband passed away a few years ago.

If you get a chance to talk to someone about their experiences during the Pearl Harbor attack, I hope you will.  Most of these folks are in their 90s and will soon be gone.  I know there are books already written, but hearing it first hand from someone who has actually been through it is special.

Related articles:
Hawaii, Hickam AFB, Honolulu, military, Pearl Harbor, Pearl Harbor attack

About Sandi Schmidt
After taking the Master Gardener classes in 2001, I removed half the St Augustine in the front yard and planted beds of deer-resistant perennials. The same approach to the backyard was not as satisfying. Missing the semi-tropicals of the MS Gulf Coast and the tropicals of our years in Hawaii, we added a pond, some small palms, and a few flowering tropicals. I started reading, collecting, and experimenting. After completing the two year course series for Landscape Design Study at Texas A&M, I joined a few garden clubs including the Garden Club of Austin, Violet Crown, and the National Garden Club. Our garden is a Certified Wildlife Habitat. We also have a rainwater harvesting system...for all those tropicals!

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