Childhood Memories of Pearl Harbor

May 02, 2018
by Jason Alghussein

Their combined age at the time was barely old enough to enlist. Still, Pat Campbell and Jimmy Lee had front row seats for one of the most devastating events in American history. Here are some of their memories of Pearl Harbor and the attack that changed the course of history.

Wreaths on the USS Arizona Memorial

Wreaths on the USS Arizona Memorial

The best way to remember the tragedy of Pearl Harbor and keep it a vital part of the nation’s history is by hearing and retelling the stories of those who witnessed it firsthand. This was the founding principle of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, which officially disbanded in 2011, and the reason for annual commemoration ceremonies held on the attack’s anniversary. But there is another aspect of the attack beyond the military one that needs to be preserved: the experiences of the civilian residents of Oahu on and after December 7, 1941.

On that morning, Oahu families were going about their business just as the men and women of the armed forces stationed nearby were. They were completely unaware of a potential attack on Pearl Harbor, and yet at 0755, they suddenly heard the sounds of the incoming Japanese aircraft. Many of them, including Patsy Campbell and Jimmy Lee, watched as the attack unfolded and felt the horror as their peaceful island was bombarded and strafed.

These two survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack weren't in uniform, manning battle stations and fighting back against the Japanese attackers. But they were there nonetheless, and their stories, even more than 75 years later, are important to keeping the memory  of that morning alive.

Patsy Campbell, the Night Before

Memories of Pearl Harbor: USS Arizona Band

USS Arizona Band, 6 December 1941

One thing that seems so shocking about the Pearl Harbor attack is that just hours before it unfolded, the people of Oahu were going about their lives as normal. Nobody had an inkling of what was going to unfold the next morning, which is why 10-year-old Patsy (Pat) Campbell was enjoying the fun of a jitterbug contest at the Bloch Arena, which sits just south of Pearl Harbor.

During the evening of December 6, Patsy was sitting directly in front of the band, letting the music move her feet. She must have been moving quite a bit because the evening’s emcee noticed her immediately and thought her a  perfect candidate for the contest. After finding a dance partner for the young lady, 17-year-old Jack Evans, the emcee sent them out to show off their moves. By the evening’s end, they had won a trophy as the jitterbug champions. Despite competing together, they were never formally introduced, and the two went their separate ways without even learning each other’s names.

After such a happy and exciting night, she would soon have to live through the tragic events of the morning that followed. She slept and woke up as usual, but she wasn’t greeted by chirping birds and rays of sunshine. Instead, smoke billowed over the nearby harbor, and foreign planes swooped in, dropping objects all over the island. Patsy was unaware of the truth of what was happening, but when her father sent her, her mother, brother, and dog to the neighbor’s house, she knew it was something serious–and bad.

Next door, she had a close-up view of the destruction being wrought at Pearl Harbor. The entire household was frozen in shock as they peered out from the second story and watched as fires raged throughout Pearl Harbor and explosions racked Hickam Field. Campbell had a front-row seat to an event she never asked to attend: the start of a war and the loss of more than 2,400 lives.

Jimmy Lee, Watching from the Railroad Tracks

Civilian car destroyed in the attack, December 7, 1941

An 11-year-old boy is bound to want to stop and marvel at the awesome power of warplanes as they fly overhead. Living near Pearl Harbor, less than a mile away on his family’s farm, Jimmy Lee was used to seeing American planes over his own backyard. So on the morning of December 7, 1941, when he watched a fleet of aircraft fly overhead, he thought nothing of it at first.

While taking care of his morning chores, Jimmy and his brothers were under the flight path of the Japanese aerial fleet, but the young boys were unaware of the fact that these weren’t American planes soaring overhead. They rushed to the railroad tracks to watch the craft approach Pearl Harbor. They never thought that their excitement at watching the military craft would turn to horror, but as they watched, those magnificent planes flew over Pearl Harbor and unleashed a payload of bombs that erupted in front of the boys’ eyes.

According to Jimmy’s account, even as the harbor erupted into flames and smoke, they didn’t initially feel fear. Military operations weren’t something they knew much about, and it wasn't until they were told that the nation was at war that the fear  kicked in. The family left their farm close to the assault and took shelter near Waimalu Valley, in the shadow of the mountains. For about an hour, they hid, listening from afar as the attack continued. Eventually, when the explosions subsided, his parents led the family back home. Shortly after the attack ended, Jimmy would get a glimpse of how it would affect different families in different ways.

His neighbor, Toshi Yamamoto, was a close friend he had known and played with since second grade. Checking in on his friend, Jimmy found the Yamamoto house completely empty, and the family was nowhere to be found.

Jimmy and his family continued living on Oahu, tending to their farm until Jimmy’s brothers were old enough to join the service. Still too young to enlist, he remained behind, enduring the hardships caused by martial law.

After living through the war in Hawaii, Jimmy took inspiration from his brothers and when he was old enough, joined the Hawaii Air National Guard. His service eventually brought him into the Army for a career that took him to Germany, South Korea, Guam, Japan, and the mainland United States. As much as he tried throughout his adult life, Jimmy never reconnected with Toshi, and he never knew what had happened to his friend after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

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