Before the start of World War II, there was much controversy over the place of women in the armed forces. The US military believed that women were more suited to non-combat roles such as nurses, mechanics, drivers, and telegraphers. In Honolulu, servicewomen were living through tense times, and the country felt on the brink of war. But they were making the best of their situation stationed in Pearl Harbor, which was just as beautiful then as it is today.
At approximately 6:00 in the morning on December 7, 1941, Japanese Zeros were approaching. Using a radio station from Honolulu as a guidance beacon, the commander of the Japanese air formation moved in for the first wave of attacks.
Radar was a relatively new technology, but mobile radar stations in Hawaii had been activated a month before the attacks. A radar operator on duty noticed what appreared to be 50 or more inbound aircraft and headed directly for Oahu, and notified the information center.
The Japanese planes were mistaken for a group of B-17s traveling from California to Hawaii on their way to the Philippines. The officer at the radar network hub in Fort Shafter told the radar operator, “Don’t worry about it.”
The commander of the air raids gave the order to attack just before 8:00 a.m. The Japanese aircraft moved in and bombed the Army Air Forces’ Wheeler Field, just north of Pearl Harbor. Neatly parked wingtip to wingtip, most U.S. planes were destroyed during the attack.
About 10 minutes later, the armor-piercing bomb that struck the USS Arizona was dropped, resulting in more than 1000 casualties. The first wave of the attacks subsided, and there were countless injured soldiers who required immediate medical care.
Few of the women stationed at Pearl Harbor as nurses had yet to see the true realities of war. For many, this was the first exposure to any combat scenario. From enjoying the nightlife of Honolulu on a Saturday night like any other, to waking up and experiencing the chaos and hysteria of the bloodbath, everyone’s lives were turned upside down.
An hour after the bombing of the USS Arizona, the second wave of dive-bombers approached. Meeting heavy resistance from US anti-aircraft weapons, the Japanese pilots forced their way through, crashing into the battleship Pennsylvania and nearly destroying numerous other ships. Several ships were damaged, and the USS Arizona, USS Utah, and USS Oklahoma were total losses.
Around 10:30, nearly three hours after the strike on the USS Arizona, the wounded began to arrive onshore to be treated. The nurses were confronted with horrifying images of hundreds of badly burned bodies. The nurses worked tirelessly under tremendous pressure to help the mortally wounded, although for some, the only treatment they were able to give was a heavy dose of morphine to numb the pain.
Elizabeth McIntosh (right), a reporter for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin at the time of the attacks, wrote a disturbing account of her experiences that day. The newspaper refused to publish the article due to its graphic nature. An excerpt from her account:
”In the morgue, the bodies were laid on slabs in the grotesque positions in which they had died. Fear contorted their faces. Their clothes were blue-black from incendiary bombs. One little girl in a red sweater, barefoot, still clutched a piece of jump-rope in her hand.”
The women who held everything together that infamous morning proved that women are capable of much more than they were thought to be. Four days after the attack, the Bureau of the Budget stopped objecting to the expansion of female military divisions, and plans to create a Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps picked up speed.
If you want to learn more about the role women played during the attacks, there is a breadth of information available at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center. These museums are a must-visit stop for families looking to educate their young ones, and for anyone interested in this chapter in women’s history.
You can explore a submarine, take a ferry to pay your respects at a memorial for a sunken battleship, and take a tour of a similar-class U.S. Navy battleship, with build-in time for lunch. It’s always recommended to do some research before going on a tour, and to save time and energy it’s a good idea to combine multiple sites at once. Remember to book your tickets in advance to enjoy a stress-free day and secure access to every Pearl Harbor historic site on the day of your visit.