Notable Letters From Pearl Harbor

November 24, 2016

“If I live thru it, I’ll be glad not to have missed it.”

These are the words Mrs Jane Colestock, wife of Lieutenant Edward Colestock, wrote just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Along with many others, Jane had family and friends overseas while she was in the midst of the Hawaiian devastation. With no phones or computers, the only way to contact loved ones was to write letters or telegrams.

As the years have gone on, many letters like this have been found by family members or are held in museums, all describing the attack from differing perspectives.

These are some of the most notable letters from 75 years ago.

Of the aftermath, Mrs Colestock wrote, “Superficially the station looks the same except for the skeleton of a burned hangar, wreckage of a Japanese plane scattered on the hill and of course gun emplacements, brownish-green dyed white uniforms on the sailors, helmets, rifles, pistol belts, unshaven officers etc.”

Corporal Henry G. Rieth sent telegrams to let his family in Boston know he was okay after the attack, and as soon as time and the postal service permitted, he was able to send letters. Two weeks after the attack, he wrote, “I went up to the hospital with Johnnie to see a few of the boys. I guess they’ll all pull through O.K… Paul will be back with us soon because the way he’s improved is proof that he’s got what it takes. I started kidding him about only the good dying young and that’s the reason he got off so easy. He’s type of a guy that doesn’t even cuss or drink anything stronger than a coke so he got a kick out of it.”

Pearl Harbor Advanced Warning

Commander Slade Cutter was awarded four Navy Crosses for his exemplary wartime leadership and wrote to his mother just days after the attack, “I do not think that the attack will be repeated as the element of surprise is lacking and that was the only thing that made the affair successful. It was a serious blow, but not at all as bad as one might think.”

Marine Corporal E.C. Nightingale was aboard the USS Arizona when Japan attacked, but unlike many others on board the ship, he made it off. In his letter, he describes how he survived while many others perished. "We were perhaps twenty-five feet from the pipe line when the Major's strength gave out and I saw he was floundering, so I loosened my grip on him and told him to make it alone. He stopped and grabbed me by the shirt and refused to let go. I would have drowned but for the Major. We finally reached the beach where a marine directed us to a bomb shelter, where I was given dry clothes and a place to rest."

These are just a few of the notable letters from the fateful attack 75 years ago on December 7, 1941. Together, they give us an account of the devastation, the fear, the attempts at humor, and the seeming disbelief that each person who lived through the attack felt at the time.

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