Pearl Harbor: 5 frontline stories from people who were there

On 7 December 1941, a fleet of Japanese aircraft unleashed a surprise attack on the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor in Oahu, Hawaii. What was it like for those who experienced the raid first-hand? Historian Gavin Mortimer shares five stories…

Lauren Bruner and Iyozo Fujita

As Japanese bombers screamed through the skies over Pearl Harbor, they plotted a course that would alter not only the lives of millions of people stationed at the naval base below them, but those of millions across the world. Read five different points of view of the raid below…

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1

Myrtle Watson

The quick-thinking nurse

Lieutenant Myrtle Watson from Maryland
(Public domain)

Only 82 military nurses were stationed in Hawaii when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. One of them was 27-year-old Lieutenant Myrtle Watson from Maryland. She was on duty on the orthopaedic ward at Schofield Hospital on what was expected to be a quiet Sunday morning shift. After breakfast, Watson and her fellow nurses wheeled some of the patients onto the second-storey porch so they could watch a football game about to begin.

“As we stood on the porch looking out at the field, we heard the low sound of planes coming overhead,” she recalled. Several of the patients waved at the aircraft, believing they were US aircraft on an exercise. Then they attacked.

“They were so low we could see the Rising Sun,” recalled Watson. “You know the pictures of the Japanese pilots with their scarves around their necks and bands around their foreheads? They were so close you could see that.”

Watson and the other nurses rushed the patients back inside the ward. “I began cutting some of the guys out of traction and moving them under their beds,” she said. “As the strafing was still going on, I piled mattresses around them, then climbed under the bed with them.”

Soon the first casualties began arriving at the hospital – men suffering from an array of horrendous wounds. “Some men were missing arms and legs,” said Watson. “The saddest and most depressing cases were the burns victims. Some of the men who were brought in were charred to a crisp… their bodies resembled strips of fried and partially burnt bacon.”

For three days and nights, Watson worked tirelessly on the ward, her fortitude matched by the courage of her patients. Wards were awash with blood, and in some cases,  whisky was used when supplies of morphine ran out.

2

Lauren Bruner

The injured crewman

Lauren Bruner
(Public domain)

A 21-year-old fire controlman third class aboard the USS Arizona, Lauren Bruner had spent Saturday evening on a first date with a young woman he’d been sweet on for months. A second date was arranged for the Sunday evening, and he was already looking forward to it when, at 07.55, the Japanese launched their attack. Bruner climbed to his battle station on the forward mast of the Arizona and began firing back. Around 15 minutes later, the battleship was hit by four 800kg bombs.

“The ship was engulfed in flames,” recalled Bruner. “I and five others were located on the anti-aircraft gun director’s platform above the bridge when the forward powder magazine blew.”

Not only was Bruner trapped along with his crewmates, he had burns over 80 per cent of his body. “At that point, the only possibility to evacuate the ship was to dive in the water, which was 80 feet below and fully engulfed in flame,” he said. “That was not an option for survival.”

It seemed inevitable that the trapped men would join the 1,177 other crew killed aboard the Arizona, but then their plight was seen by Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Joe George on board the USS Vestal. A repair ship that had also been hit by Japanese bombs, the Vestal came alongside the blazing Arizona and George threw over a line to the stranded sailors 70 feet away.

“We secured the line on the Arizona and each of us climbed hand over hand over to the Vestal, even though we were severely burned,” said Bruner, who was the penultimate man to leave the Arizona. The climb across the burning water below was like “being roasted”, he recalled, and two of the six men subsequently died of their wounds. After several months in hospital Bruner returned to active service, but he never got to go on a second date with his sweetheart.

3

Franklin D Roosevelt

The embattled president

US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt
(Image by History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Sunday 7 December served up a crisp winter’s morning in Washington DC. After breakfast, President Franklin D Roosevelt met the Chinese ambassador, Dr Hu Shih, and expressed his belief that Japan would not risk a war with the United States. Lunch followed, with Roosevelt dining in his Yellow Oval Room study in the company of his close advisor, Harry Hopkins.

At 1.40pm, Roosevelt received a telephone call from Frank Knox, secretary of the navy, informing him of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The president summoned the rest of his advisors, as outside the White House a crowd of several hundred bewildered Americans gathered.

That evening, Roosevelt assembled his cabinet in the Yellow Oval Room. Several of those present were still ignorant about the precise details of the attack, so Roosevelt told them that “a great fleet of Japanese bombers bombed our ships in Pearl Harbor, and bombed all of our airfields… the casualties, I am sorry to say, are extremely heavy”.

After the meeting, he hosted a gathering of politicians from the Senate and House of Representatives and explained the “awfully serious situation”. His request to address a joint session of Congress at 12.30pm the next day was granted. The gathering lasted until nearly 11pm, and before going to bed Roosevelt again ran over his speech. Cordell Hull, the secretary of state, had advised him to lengthen the address, but FDR believed brevity would deepen its impact.

The seven-minute speech was broadcast live across the country on the radio, and its opening sentence has become one of the most famous lines in history. “Yesterday,” declared FDR, “7 December 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the empire of Japan.”

4

Iyozo Fujita

The fighter pilot

Japanese fighter pilot Iyozo Fujita
(Photo by AP/Shutterstock)

Born in November 1917, Sub-Lieutenant Iyozo Fujita graduated from the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy in 1938. In September 1941, he was assigned to the aircraft carrier Sōryū as a Zero fighter pilot.

On 7 December, Fujita was part of the 167-strong second wave commanded by Fusata Iida, whose target was the Kaneohe base. “My one thought was to do as good a job as I could and hope to God I would get through it all alive,” he later recalled.

“The night before the attack, I could not sleep,” Fujita remembered. “I drank six bottles of beer but I couldn’t get drunk, I couldn’t get sleepy. I was awake all night until the morning came.”

On the day itself, Fujita changed into new clothing, so that, in the samurai tradition, he would go into battle clean. He then climbed into the cockpit of his fighter plane holding a photograph of his dead parents. As his fleet approached Hawaii, tension increased among the pilots – many of whom, like Fujita, had never flown a combat mission.

Fujita strafed the airbase and took a burst of ground fire in his left wing. Also hit was Iida’s aircraft, bullets ripping open his fuel tank. “Iida turned and saluted me, then pointed to his mouth and shook his head. This meant he had no more fuel,” said Fujita. “Then he waved goodbye.” Iida deliberately launched his plane towards the ground, vanishing into the thick smoke.

Fujita’s flight engaged in a dogfight with two American fighters before the Japanese broke off and returned to the task force. With his engine sputtering and his oil pressure almost at zero, Fujita nursed his plane onto the deck of Sōryū. “I felt very relieved,” he recalled. “It was good, and that’s all. When you’re fighting in a war, the way you think is very simple.”

5

Shigeru Fukudome

The naval supremo

Rear-Admiral Shigeru Fukudome
(Image by せたがやアバント-Wikimedia Commons)

Rear-Admiral Shigeru Fukudome served as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s chief of staff from 1940 until April 1941. He said the idea of attacking Pearl Harbor was first mooted in early 1940. “[Yamamoto] had studied the attack plan strenuously and thoroughly,” he told his US captors in 1945. “His confidence was so great that he once told me: ‘If this plan should fail, it would mean defeat in the war.’ He would not have taken such a risk if he had not been fully confident of success.”

Fukudome didn’t sail with the task force, but he tracked their progress from naval staff HQ, ready to order them back to Japan if the element of surprise was lost en route to Hawaii. “The general attitude was to take no more chances than absolutely necessary,” he explained. “If there was any element of doubt or if things did not go according to plan, the main objective was to get the task force home.”

But the voyage did go according to plan, and the day before the attack, the fleet received the coded message to attack: “Climb Mount Niitaka.” The day chosen for the attack, a Sunday, was deliberate, said Fukudome. “A number of Japanese spies were working in Hawaii at the time. Their information was that the US fleet usually spent most of the week training at sea and returned to Pearl Harbor on Saturdays, and the crews rested on Sunday. To make our attack most effective, we chose Sunday, when the fleet would normally be at anchor.”

Nonetheless, Fukudome admitted, it was neither spies nor surprise that most aided the Japanese, but luck. “We use the term ‘God’s help’ to describe the luck we had at the time,” he said. “We were really lucky: the plan was kept secret until the very last moment; we were able to refuel our ships on schedule; all of the American battleships were at anchor.”

Gavin Mortimer is a bestselling writer, historian and television consultant. His books include The Long Range Desert Group in World War II (Osprey, 2017).

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These stories first appeared in our Pearl Harbor special edition, on sale now, which brings together personal stories with analysis from expert historians, to recount how the raid unfolded, step by step.