By Dr. Richard Kelley
There are fewer and fewer people alive today who personally witnessed the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. According to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, only about 200 surviving veterans attended this year’s commemoration, which coincided with the inauguration of the exciting new $56 million Pearl Harbor Visitor Center and Museum.
Without diminishing in even the slightest degree my admiration for the thousands of brave men and women who defended Pearl Harbor, Hickam Field, Wheeler Field, Kaneohe Naval Air Station, Bellows Field, and Ewa Marine Corps Air Station, I want to point out that there were also explosions all over O‘ahu that morning, which caused many civilian deaths and injuries as well as significant property damage. While civilian casualties were only a tiny fraction of the deaths and injuries among uniformed personnel, the sudden, violent demise of roughly 60 noncombatant bystanders would have triggered major headlines if they had not been overshadowed by military losses a staggering 40 times higher.
In fact, my sisters, Jean and Pat, our parents, Roy and Estelle Kelley, and I came close to being among the civilian causalities. Roy had dropped us kids off curbside at St. Clement’s Church, near Punahou School in Manoa Valley, for Sunday School about the time the attack started at 7:55 a.m. Shortly thereafter, he probably heard Webley Edwards interrupt normal radio programming to urgently say, “Pearl Harbor is under attack. This is no drill!” Roy did a quick U-turn and picked us up from church a few minutes later.
My sister Pat was just four years old at the time but has a vivid memory of what happened next. Here’s what she wrote to me this week.
“I remember how close we came to being a part of the dead that day – when we drove past the corner of McCully and King streets, a building exploded and a fire started.
“And then, two blocks later, another shell landed on the Japanese school. There was no McCully Bridge in those years, so we had to cross the Ala Wai on the Kalakaua Bridge.
“As we got to the intersection of Lewers Street and Kuhio Avenue, our car briefly stalled and then got going again. Suddenly, there was a big boom and a huge hole in the ground right where our car had been stalled. I remember watching out the back window of the car.
“Shrapnel from that shell ripped through the nearby apartment building on the makai-Diamond Head corner of that intersection and almost killed Mrs. Harry Good, who, with her husband, ran a liquor store on Kalakaua Avenue. Mrs. Good was in the apartment at the time. Fortunately, she had just bent over to tune in the radio, so the shrapnel missed her. If she had been standing, the shrapnel would have gone right through her. I vividly recall Daddy later showing me the holes in the walls of the apartment house where this happened.
“Then there was the shell that sent shrapnel between you (Richard) and me as we all watched more of the bombing from the top floor lanai of our home at 2270 Kuhio Avenue.”
Reading the newspaper reports from December 7, 1941, it is clear that no one was safe anywhere on O‘ahu that morning. One shell fell near Washington Place, the residence of Territorial Governor Joseph Poindexter. An entire family of eight or nine people was reported killed “by a bomb” near the corner of Nu‘uanu and Kuakini streets. A wood frame house was “split in half” at Fort and School streets. Five people died in an explosion at Palama Settlement. And on and on ran the breathless reports.
Summaries of the articles indicate that anywhere from 55 to 68 civilians were killed and approximately 35 wounded in the attack. (These figures compare to 2,402 dead and 1,247 injured military personnel.) It is not 100 percent clear, but it seems likely that most, if not all, of the casualties in civilian areas were inflicted by “friendly fire,” our own anti-aircraft shells falling back to earth and exploding after missing attacking planes.
We’ll never know for sure, and it obviously does not matter today, as we remember and honor everyone who experienced those terrifying hours on O‘ahu 69 years ago.