When we talk about the attack on Pearl Harbor that occurred in December of 1941, we’re quick to jump to stories of the sailors who opposed Japan’s forces and the mighty vessels that were damaged or sank, but we tend to forget that at the start of the attack, regular people were going about their business as usual. Though not directly involved in the effort that morning, many people of Oahu were stunned and confused by the explosions and visible fireballs coming from the harbor; and some of those people were very young, such as 4-year-old Charlene Sexton.
Though children like Charlene may have been too young to understand exactly what was happening, the panic and frantic actions of those around them surely gave away that something was terribly wrong. Charlene’s father was Chief Warrant Officer Charles Mencer, a pharmacist aboard the USS Arizona in 1939. In 1941, Mencer requested an assignment on land and had his wife and daughter move to Oahu with him.
The night before the attack, the Mencers hosted a night of entertainment with friends who, in less than 24-hours, would fall victim to the unexpected bombing. Charlene may have been too young to comprehend what her father meant when he exclaimed, “It’s the Japs,” but when her mother was nearly strafed by an inbound Japanese pilot, the severity of the situation embedded itself forever.
Along with the Mencers, the Kelley family found themselves amidst the destruction that rained upon Oahu that day. Their three children, including four-year-old Pat and her brother Richard, had just been dropped off at Sunday School in Manoa Valley when the attacks began. Immediately after leaving them, their father returned to pick them up. As the family passed King and McCully streets, one building erupted into flames, and further down the road another building—a Japanese school—fell victim to the bombing. As Pat recalls, the family’s car stalled momentarily, and just after it started moving again, the ground they were on cratered beneath a Japanese bomb.
While the Kelleys were outrunning the attack, Mr. and Mrs. Good were forced to duck into a liquor store to avoid shrapnel from the bomb that almost hit the Kelleys’ vehicle. Their apartment had been destroyed, something that many families were experiencing across the island. Houses were split in half, and street corners were struck, bringing the attack closer to home than in previous conflicts endured by the United States.
Over 2,000 soldiers were killed in the attacks, and just over 100 civilians were also affected. Of those 100, 68 were killed. Explosions stretched beyond the harbor and airfield, threatening the safety of Oahu’s neighborhoods, residents, and storefronts.
While the remaining soldiers who fought in the conflict are now few and far between 75 years later, the story of Pearl Harbor lives on in young civilians who were forced to experience one of the most terrifying days of their lives.