This is the first of a 3-part series of excerpted stories about the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor that occurred on December 7, 1941. They are all stories from people I’ve interviewed. Their stories are published in the books listed.
Excerpt from It Was Our War Too: Youth in the Shadows of WWII:
Shortly before 8:00 a.m. on Sunday, December 7, 1941, hundreds of Japanese aircraft conducted a surprise attack on the American Naval Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor at Hawaii. By 10:00 a.m. much of the American fleet was destroyed or seriously damaged.
Seven American battleships were sunk or too crippled to be of use. One of the sunken ships included the USS Arizona, which lost 1,177 crew members.
The total number of military personnel killed at Pearl Harbor was 2,335; 68 civilians were injured or killed as a result of the attack.
The assault at Pearl Harbor was part of a plan to eliminate America’s potential challenge to Japanese control in Asia. The incident represents the U.S. Navy’s greatest disaster.
On the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941, Lillian Butterfield, 27, received a phone call at her home in downtown Honolulu. As it was her day off as a nurse at Queen’s Medical Center (then Queen’s Hospital), she was surprised to be asked to report for work.
The hospital staff person offered no explanation as to why Lillian was being asked to report for duty. All she said was that the same request was being made of all nursing staff currently off-duty.
Lillian didn’t question the request for help. Any time she could provide nursing care to people in need, she was willing to assist.
Her husband, George Butterfield, received a similar call from his supervisor at Hickam Field. The military base had been established in 1935 as Hawaii’s principal army airfield and bomber base. Butterfield worked as a civilian machinist. Like his wife, George agreed to give up his free time for the as-yet unknown emergency.
Lillian and George had met when George’s family moved to Hawaii. Lillian was born in Hawaii following her grandparents settling there from Portugal years earlier to work in Hawaii’s sugarcane fields.
Note: In 1900 the series of islands in the South Pacific called Hawaii became a United States territory after a two-year period of annexation. The area was granted statehood along with Alaska in 1959 with Hawaii being declared the 50th state to be added to the Union.
Lillian took her and George’s only child, two-year-old Charlotte, from their home near Diamondhead to Lillian’s parents’ house on the other side of the island at Kailua Beach. Lillian’s father worked for the Hawaiian Parks Department at Kailua Beach.
Charlotte’s grandparents soon heard from neighbors the cause for their sudden request to babysit — the Japanese military had attacked Pearl Harbor earlier that day.
The result of the attack was devastating. While primarily targeting battleships and carriers, Japanese fighters and dive-bombers had strafed and bombed the flight line and hangars at Hickam Field where dozens of planes sat on the ground.
Nearly half of the airplanes at Hickam Field were destroyed or severely damaged. The Hawaiian Air Depot, base fire station, chapel and guardhouse had all been hit and thousands of people killed, including civilians.
The second wave of the Japanese attack struck Hickam again at 8:40 a.m. By 9:45, the attacks was over and the Japanese pilots long gone. The Japanese believed such drastic measures would prevent a counterattack.
The surprise attack by the Japanese had far-reaching effects for the citizens of Hawaii. Within hours of the attack, Territorial Governor Joseph Poindexter placed Hawaii under martial law. Under those mandates, every citizen of Hawaii was required to be fingerprinted, including infants. Citizens over the age of seven were issued an official identification card which had to be carried at all times.
Rather than cards, younger children were issued bracelets with an attached disc that carried their identification information. “My bracelet contained my first and last names, blood type, and assigned identification number,” said Charlotte Butterfield. She was too young to wear one of the gas masks issued to all Hawaiian civilians over the age of seven. The masks were to prepare for the possibility of poison gas attacks or air raids.
Fearing they could be attacked again, the Hawaiians lived under a nightly blackout rule, which was strictly enforced. Every building’s windows were draped and every street light darkened and vehicle headlights covered. The efforts to prevent the enemy from viewing potential targets continued through most of the duration of the war.
Barbed wire was placed around beaches, water pumping stations, electrical installations and government buildings. Civilians dug holes for bomb shelters and many private homes and public places prepared to house people during a raid.
Food on the island was rationed and liquor banned. Luxury hotels, devoid of tourists, housed military personnel. No photos of the islands were permitted to be taken and if cameras were found, they were confiscated.
Days passed before Lillian Butterfield was granted a break to return to her home and family. Though her hospital was not on a military base, it was used to assist in the injuries incurred from the attack. “The nurses were kept very busy at that time,” said Charlotte.
George maintained long hours repairing damaged equipment from the bombs and strafing. “Dad’s job was to get things back to normal so we islanders could defend ourselves,” said Charlotte.
Though a young child during the assault on Pearl Harbor, Charlotte Butterfield had nightmares for years. “I had horrible dreams about planes flying over our house,” she said.