The level of devastation that the military installation at Pearl Harbor sustained after the Japanese launched a surprise attack on December 7, 1941 was dumbfounding, but the damage extended further than Battleship Row and the decimated airfields. While Japan’s fighters and bombers had clear targets and were aiming at the large battleships moored in the harbor and the aircraft that were neatly lined up, plenty of strafing fire and even bombs missed their marks and struck areas of civilian population.
Like in many battles throughout the ages, non-combatants—in this case residents of Honolulu and Oahu—found themselves among unavoidable hazards of war.
The Civilian Casualties
As the smoke started to rise from the harbor, civilians in Honolulu were forced to face the grim reality that their slice of paradise was under attack. Though they may have scrambled to hide from the reality, it wouldn’t save some of them from the incoming attack.
Bombings were meant to level airfields, but several shells found their way into civilian territory. From one of these strays, Pearl Harbor’s youngest victim, three-month-old Janet Yumiko Ohta, was killed. While taking shelter in her home with her mother and aunt, a shell struck the building, killing them all. They were just three of the 49 total civilians who were killed during the attack.
Of those 49, 32 were killed in Honolulu, the victims’ ages ranging from three months to 50 years old, many of them sharing a Japanese background. With no means of knowing where the attack would come from and nowhere to hide if they could pinpoint the direction of Japan’s fighters and bombers, Honolulu’s citizens were stuck scrambling for their lives. Apartment buildings were struck, their facades marked with lasting scars to remind survivors of the terrible attack. Businesses were destroyed, a livelihood leveled in the wake of Japan’s surprise invasion.
Beyond Honolulu, several people at sugar mills in Waipahu and Ewa were wounded or killed when a handful of Japan’s fighters shifted focus to attack non-military points of interest, likely hoping to cripple some of the industry on the island. Tragically, some of the injuries and deaths came from probable friendly fire, and though none were confirmed, eyewitness reports claim unexploded anti-aircraft rounds landed in residential areas.
The Legacy of the Attack
In total, 84 civilians were either injured or killed in the attack, their innocence not enough to keep them from taking a portion of Japan’s attack. Their family members will never forget and, thanks to the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, neither will visitors to Pearl Harbor.
Their stories are hidden within the many exhibits spread throughout the Visitor Center, tucked away in the mini-documentaries about the attack. While a good portion of the information there refers to the damage done to the Navy, it’s difficult to forget that there was a civilian presence around Pearl Harbor that also deserves to be honored.