Honoring Pearl Harbor Survivor Adolph Kuhn

By: Chris Ramos

Adolph Kuhn: An American Journey (1921-Present)
Amazed at the grandeur of Oz when she first arrived, Dorothy proclaimed to Toto, “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Following the December 7, 1941 surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the essence of that statement proved to be more than fitting for a certain farm boy who grew up in La Crosse, Kansas.

Let’s follow the yellow brick road of Adolph Kuhn’s storied life.


Adolph Kuhn, a first generation German American, was born on September 5, 1921 to Lorenz Kuhn and Katie Legleiter. One of twelve children, he grew up on a wheat farm during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl days.

Barely a week after graduating from high school, he enlisted with the U.S. Navy on May 26, 1940 and was sent off to boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois. He learned his trade at the Aviation Metalsmith School in Pensacola, Florida. On January 20, 1941, Kuhn was assigned to Ford Island Naval Air Station and arrived at Pearl Harbor courtesy of the USS Boise.


In an interview for the Manteca Magazine (published February 12, 2015 on YouTube), Kuhn recounts the “date which will live in infamy” with host Sid Reams so vividly, it is as though it happened yesterday. Kuhn was startled awake by bullets coming through the roof of the bedroom and rushed outside. Reality hit when he saw the “rising sun meatballs” on the planes and jumped into the Model A Ford after the sailor commanded, “We’re at war, Mack, get in!”

After arriving on base, he desperately tried to get to his station. Running across the officer’s golf course in his white uniform, he felt like an easy target as he ducked behind palm tree after palm tree to dodge enemy bullets. The Marine in front of him was decapitated by strafing, but Kuhn pushed on.

He reached the boat landing, but no boats were available to traverse the Pearl Harbor channel. Flames were dancing atop the oily water. Kuhn and 11 other men waded toward a fisherman’s small boat and piled in. Just as they had intertwined themselves to fit in the boat, bullets rained around them, splintering the boat. The boat began to sink, but amazingly, not a single man onboard was hit. Kuhn was forced to dog paddle through the watery graveyard using debris and dismembered body parts to stay afloat. Sailor hats with names embroidered crosswise drifted by, as if they were announcing the death of their owners.

While I was in that harbor swimming, torpedoes passed me, right in front of me, and I watched them and they hit Battleship Row. And them ships, they leapt out of the water just like a wounded whale,” Kuhn recalls in the video. He could hear the moaning and groaning as the bulkheads tore apart.

By some miracle, Kuhn managed to crawl onto the extended ramp used to launch sea planes. As he straightened out his skinny 6′ 4¾” frame, all he could see was smoke billowing over a field of damaged planes. At that moment, Corbis snapped the famous photo that would be featured in National Geographic’s edition commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Kuhn entered the airplane hangar in total darkness to lie under a welding table to catch his breath. Suddenly, a bomb came through the roof 50 feet in front of him. It was spewing hazardous fumes, but it did not go off and he inched out of a little door.

He then jumped on a tractor in an effort to drag a plane out of the line of fire toward the bone yard. When the Japanese pilot dropped a bomb from above, he was sure he was a goner. He unhitched the plane and started heading in the opposite direction when the bomb exploded just out of range.


Adolph Kuhn (88 years old in the photo), a 20-year-old Navy aviation chief at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, pulls out a memento he took off a Japanese plane during World War II. Photo Credit: Lance Cpl. Daniel Boothe.

Kuhn heard an announcement over a megaphone requesting volunteers for a rescue mission. It wasn’t long after he boarded the USS Arizona that he realized it was fruitless; most of the men were already trapped in the sinking ship and the ones he tried to save were burned beyond hope. Again, Kuhn was able to escape unscathed.

Approximately 2400 lives were lost that day, but Adolph Kuhn’s wasn’t one of them. Dorothy had Glinda the Good Witch watching over her; Kuhn is thankful for his guardian angel. He strongly believes he received 19 extra chances at life on that fateful day.


When Reams asked how he felt toward the Japanese at the present day, Kuhn replied, “I have no animosity towards Japanese people. Those pilots were young guys just like all of us were. They were in naval aviation, I was in naval aviation. They were trained to go and do what they had to do and if our President or if our Navy commanders and admirals told us guys at Pearl Harbor to get in a plane and fly to so and so other place and drop bombs, we probably would have done the same thing because you don’t ask questions; you obey orders.”

Kuhn remained in the Navy for 6 years. He was discharged in 1946, but spent 5 years in the inactive reserves.

He met Elsie Rogers at a party in San Francisco and as fate would have it, married her 5 months later on October 24, 1944. About a year later, Adolph Kuhn, Jr. was born in Antioch, California.

Having learned carpentry, electrical, and plumbing skills on base in addition to doing metalsmith work, Kuhn was able to work in a number of industrial jobs. At a young age, he became the superintendent of a large manufacturing plant.

In 1961, he became his own boss, opening a welding shop in Indio, California. That same year, at the personal request of director Stanley Kramer, he worked on the classic film It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, a highlight in Kuhn’s storied life.

He moved to Manteca, California in 1964 and remained there for the majority of his adult life. Kuhn retired at the age of 70.


CurrentLike L. Frank Baum, who penned the The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Kuhn always had a passion for writing and published his memoirs along with a poignant poetry book entitled Pearl Harbor Poems. These books were originally distributed from his residence with all proceeds donated to the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association (PHSA). Currently, Adolph Kuhn: An American Journey (1921-Present) (Create Space December 2010) is available on Amazon. Kuhn started writing in his diary daily from January 1, 1939 and boasted that he has never missed an entry yet.

Kuhn is also a riveting speaker, comfortable in front of a large audience. Over the years, he has taken the time to share his stories with history students of all ages. He was chosen as one of only four keynote speakers for the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, held on December 7, 2011.

In an excerpt from his book, Kuhn exclaims, “Oh, my God. I got stories that won’t quit!” And thank goodness for that, as thousands of lives have been enriched by our “Hero of Pearl Harbor.” A million thanks to Adolph Kuhn and to his Guardian Angel who kept watch over him from his days in Kansas, through his adventures that took place somewhere over the Hawaiian rainbow.

Recommended Articles