There’s no denying the devastation that was wrought on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7th, 1941. It’s evident at the USS Arizona Memorial, that sits in the middle of the harbor overlooking the remains of the mighty battleship for which it’s named. It’s clear from the stories that are retold throughout the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. You can see it in the eyes of the Pearl Harbor survivors who still come to the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center to share their stories with travelers from all over the globe.
While we can clearly see just how destructive Japan’s attack was, what is harder to contemplate are the haunting images and memories that the sailors of Pearl Harbor and residents around the southern coastline of Oahu had imprinted on them that fateful day.
They’re scenes that could only unfold during a time of war and through an attack executed by an enemy that had no regard for the lives they were about to destroy.
The Streets of Oahu
Pearl Harbor received the brunt of the Japanese attack, but many enemy fighters and bombers veered away from the naval base to deliver blows to nearby airfields. In the midst of this, Oahu residents and businesses also became casualties.
Ginger, then a senior in high school remembers the enemy fire just outside the window of her home. Trapped within, Ginger and her family experienced the sounds of war while hiding in their doorways. Just feet from her house, the streets were riddled with machine gun fire, as if they were a major target for the aerial fleet.
Closer to downtown Honolulu, residents were going about their business when nearby buildings erupted into flames. Bombs and bullets struck private structures and roads, and it would be a long time after the attack when some of the streets wouldn’t look like a war zone.
In the Midst of Battle
Jim Downing is a name that often pops up in discussions about Pearl Harbor, and the USS West Virginia crew member is quick to retell what he remembers about the attack. Around him, mighty battleships were practically defenseless as the Japanese continued their bombardment, but it was the men on those ships who really felt the effects of the attack.
Downing recounts one of his most painful memories, of sailors being thrown from their ships into harbor waters. Oil from the ships had spilled into the harbor, coating the unfortunate sailors struggling to swim to safety. Before they could reach a haven, the fires of the attack ignited the oil, setting them ablaze, their screams melding into a cacophony of noise.
Men like William Hughes of the USS Utah were tasked with clearing the waters once the attack ended. Those torched corpses needed to be collected, and Hughes and a recovery crew brought them to dry land. Over 2,400 servicemen died during the attack, and the harbor became a literal graveyard.