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Witnesses of Pearl Harbor

Firsthand Accounts in the History Colorado Collection (10 minute read)

The attack on Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941, shocked the US into World War II. For the servicemen stationed in Hawaii, it was a Sunday unlike any they’d ever seen. Seventy-six years later it’s difficult for us to really know what it was like to be there, to put ourselves into the shoes of the brave men and women who lived through that day and the resulting war in the Pacific.

More than 400 firsthand accounts by Colorado servicemen were compiled by Ken Gaunt, who attended a memorial service on May 30, 2001, on the 60th anniversary of that day and was inspired to collect the survivors’ stories. “I heard the Pearl Harbor Survivors talking and telling their tales of that infamous day,” Gaunt says, “and it occurred to me that those stories were going to be lost if someone didn’t gather them and put them someplace where future generations could study them.” He worked with the Colorado Chapter No. 1 of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association to identify Colorado survivors and collect their stories. Below are four accounts of the attack on Pearl Harbor by servicemen stationed at various locations on Oahu, written at various points in their lives, as they remember it.

**Disclaimer: While, of course, the use of the pejorative term “Jap” is no longer tolerated today, writers at the time of World War II used the term liberally. We have left the term intact to preserve the full accuracy of these historical records. These are firsthand accounts of events occurring during the attack on Pearl Harbor and may include graphic descriptions.**

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Rear view of hangar no. 11, Hickam Field
Courtesy Library of Congress

“On Sunday December 7, 1941 my buddy, Daniel Bednar and I arose earlier than many of the other men as we had planned a picture-taking bicycle ride for this fateful Sunday. We were off the Post fairly early as planned and had gotten only about two miles from the gate of Hickam Field and were at the end of Pearl Harbor when planes came out of the sun in dive bomber chain formation. They came out of their dive low over the water at right angles with different warships…. Each plane or chain of planes had their own particular objective. We at first did not recognize the planes as that of the Rising Sun. We thought it might be our own Navy on maneuvers blowing up some obsolete ships…. We however soon changed our minds as many of the ships were split in the center and the men were scrambling off the decks and in the water….

“We were still watching with ever excited interest when a screaming whistle was heard near us and at almost the same moment the dust flew all around us, this was a near miss of shrapnel. We thought that this was a good time to be getting back to Hickam Field to see if there was not something we could do. We pedaled bikes like bikes had never been pedaled before and were back on the Post at Hickam in nothing flat. From the gate we could see our Flying Fortresses lined up and down the mats and they were burning furiously to the ground.

“Stray bullets were screaming past us and once my buddy asked if I heard that one whistle past us. I replied, ‘I am not deaf!’

“When we arrived at the barracks my buddy Dan was put on a ground machine-gun nest and I was told to draw a pistol from the armament section of the hangar. I had already fastened my gas mask upon my shoulders. After having obtained a 45 caliber pistol I went back to the barracks…. I had left my wing of the barracks and was near the consolidated mess hall when CRASH! Boom! and I was heaved into the air and came down on my back in a dazed condition. When I got up I felt myself over and found out I was none the worse for my fall. I then smelled what to me appeared to be gas. I quickly donned my gas mask and tightened up the head straps and found that I could breathe without the terrible smell. I found out later that the odor was from the powder that was within the bombs….

“I then ran as fast as I could with a gas mask on and took cover under a wooden tailor shop building as they were machine-gunning the men as fast as they could find them unprotected in the open…. A government reconnaissance car was parked along the road there and a bomb fell directly by the side of it, causing it to leap into the air and come down in a mass of wreckage…. It wasn’t many minutes until things quieted down and we laid [a] wounded officer on a board for a stretcher and started toward the hospital with him. I then discovered that I had lost my pistol and went in search of it. I found it between the barracks and the tailor shop and was wiping the dirt from it when they came back again and gave the barracks another bombing. I took cover then…. From here on men were organized to take the wounded men to the hospital and the dead were laid in the hospital yard to be hauled by the truck load to the morgue in Honolulu to be identified if possible.

“On this Sunday afternoon I entered our smoke filled, debris strewn barracks to get my uniforms and personal things that I cared most for. As I entered our wing there were pools of blood that was my buddies’ blood…. After having put my best uniforms in a barracks bag plus my diary and my Bible that my mother had sent me for a birthday I left the once most beautiful of barracks to find a new home and to resume my usual duties. I didn’t expect to live through the raid while it was going on and one strange thing that I was angry at myself for was that I had not taken out any Government Insurance and that my parents would be it seemed to me cheated out of their son as well as $10,000 of life insurance.”

—As written December 3, 1942, by Sgt. Robert E. Baird, Army Air Force, Headquarter Squadron, Hickam Air Field

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The Japanese bomber, a thin line of smoke trailing in the wake, was struck by anti-aircraft fire during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Courtesy Library of Congress

“The Commanding Officer assigned me for a period of two weeks of detached duty to a...fleet machine school which was conducted by the U.S. Marines at Puuloa Point on the island of Oahu. I had concluded one week of this schooling when this story begins.

“It was Sunday, December 7, 1941. The time was about 7:30 am. Everyone had awakened, gotten dressed, eaten, and were lounging around. I was lying on my bunk reading the Sunday paper, when I dozed off. I awoke soon after, hearing the sound of loud explosions off in a distance…. I ran out of the dormitory and immediately saw many huge columns of black smoke punctuated by tremendous explosions about 10 miles distant….

“There was utter confusion bordering on chaos for about ten minutes ------ until from the north, flying low, over the school, about 150 feet above the beach came a group of Japanese Torpedo Bombers. They were so close that the plane markings, the torpedo under the belly of the plane, and the pilot and the gunner were plainly visible. The reality of what was occurring suddenly transformed the complacency into ‘let’s do something.’ The gunnery sergeant’s command rang out above the confusion ------ ‘All right you guys, man the firing line on the double.’ … The only ammunition available was to be used for Monday’s “Towed Sleeve” target practice ------ the tips of this ammunition was painted various colors so as to identify who hit the sleeve.

“It wasn’t too long before we opened fire on the ensuing waves of attacking torpedo bombers. When they realized that they were under attack, several of their gunners opened fire on us as they passed over. I saw several of the attacking planes smoke and burst into flames after being hit. Explosions in a distance to our left, such as made by falling aircraft appeared several times. To our left between the Machine Gun School and the Pearl Harbor Channel was Fort Weaver, U.S. Army, Coastal Artillery Base. It was announced a few days later that several enemy planes were downed at Fort Weaver. Upon closer examination, it was further discovered that some of the downed enemy planes had painted bullet holes caused by our fire. When we learned of this, it was a little consolation for the tremendous loss of life and property….

“In the ensuing days we were on constant alert due to reports of imminent air attacks as well as rumors of landing assaults. During this period, I was assigned many posts and duties remaining on round the clock battle station ------ until I was returned to resume my duties aboard the U.S.S. Maryland on December 12, 1941.”

—“The Story Told As It Was,” by Walter J. Mycka, USS Maryland, written in the 1980s

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Japanese bombs wrecked and fired this hangar at the US naval air station, Pearl Harbor, and caused extensive damage to planes on the apron and runways, several of which may be seen in the foreground.

Courtesy Library of Congress

“I was born into a military household. My father, Daniel Fraley, was stationed in Hawaii with the U.S. Army Air Corps between 1931 and 1937. I attended school there as a child. When I joined the Navy in 1941, I was glad to be stationed in Hawaii on the U.S.S. Dobbin, along with my brother, Bill Fraley, who enlisted earlier.

“On December 7, 1941 I awoke early along with my buddy Goldman. We were reading the Sunday comics in the newspaper and waiting for the launch to take us to shore. I was to visit with my old school buddies where I grew up.

“We heard lots of planes and my first thought was ‘That’s a lot of planes for war game maneuvers!’ I saw the sun reflect off a “Rising Sun” emblem and recognized the shape of the plane. One plane aimed toward us. We could see the pilot’s leather hat, white scarf, and glasses. He had a huge toothy grin as he put us in his sights, pulled the trigger, and his gun jammed. We had been defenseless. Near us were washtubs of potatoes. We picked up potatoes and threw them at him in our frustration and anger.

“After this, I ran to awaken my brother, Bill, who was sleeping. I told him ‘Bill, wake up! The Japanese are attacking us!’ He said, ‘Louie, quit your jokes—you’re not funny.’ He finally realized that I had meant it, and we ran to our stations. We were 1,500 feet from the U.S.S. Arizona... .”

—Electrician Mate Chief Petty Officer Louis H. Fraley, USS Dobbin

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Wreckage of USS Arizona, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Courtesy Library of Congress

“I had just awakened and took a shower when I heard all these explosions at Pearl Harbor. I looked out the barracks window and just then a Jap Torpedo Bomber flew by with his torpedo. I yelled out to my buddies ‘the Japs are here’ and the response I got was, ‘go to bed you’re drunk.’

“About that time a bomb hit the Central Mess Hall of our composite barracks. My buddy and I took off for the concrete warehouses dodging the Jap strafers. At one time I hid as thin as I could make myself behind a lamp post and watched the bullets hit all around, up and down the road—when I got to the warehouses I found my buddy (an instrument technician) we both asked ourselves where and what to do during war time. I decided I should be with my B-18 Bomber since I was the Crew Chief and Engineer Gunner. My buddy and I cautiously proceeded to the Flight Line where in between Jap strafing runs and with many high ranking Officers help we managed to tow my aircraft out onto the field for disbursement.

“As the Japs flew by after leaving Pearl Harbor my buddy and I emptied our 45s at them—sometimes the gun got so hot we couldn’t hold it. Between lulls in the strafing I assessed the damage to my aircraft. It had a few bullet holes and shrapnel cuts which we later patched with linen and dope.* As the Japs were strafing both Pearl Harbor and us, some B-17 Bombers from the States managed to land but the Japs worked them over pretty good. All the rest of the day we watched the conflagration at Pearl Harbor and night time the anti aircraft fire was awesome due to false attack reports.

“The next day they took all the flyable B-18 aircraft and crews and put us in one squadron. We called ourselves the suicide squadron for we went looking for the Jap fleet with two 30 Cal. machine guns per aircraft. Later on we flew dawn to dusk on submarine search and patrol. We then received B-17s and moved to Bellows Field and on to the Midway Battle.”

—As written on November 14, 1991, by Staff Sergeant Edward J. Dvorak, 72nd Bomb Sq. (H), stationed at Hickam Field on December 7, 1941

*The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines dope as "A type of lacquer formerly used to protect, waterproof, and tauten the cloth surfaces of airplane wings."

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Aerial photograph taken by a Japanese pilot of the destruction of Pearl Harbor, Japanese bomber in lower right foreground.
Courtesy Library of Congress

These stories and those of many more survivors are included in the Memoirs of Pearl Harbor and Bataan Death March Survivors collection (Mss.02588), available in the Hart Research Library. Current library hours are 10 am to 3 pm Wednesday through Saturday, with no appointment or museum admission necessary to access History Colorado’s collections. More information about visiting the library can be found here.