On December 7, 1941, I was a toddler not much older than two and a half, living with my family on a ridge that overlooked Honolulu Harbor. Perhaps because of the drama of the events that followed the attack I have some images that have remained etched in my memory despite my being so small then. Other memories are of the stories that were told and retold in the months and years that followed. One was that when the attacking planes flew by our front porch, they were so close we could see the faces of the pilots.
And my mother would invariably say, “Sister was inside, still in her high-chair, howling because we had left her there all alone when we ran outside. Then we brought her outside with us.”
Following the first minutes of the attack my father, a Marine officer, left our Honolulu home immediately to go to the other side of Oahu to the Marine Air Station where his anti-aircraft unit was stationed. Sometime during the next week he would be shipped out to destinations in the Pacific Theater.
My brothers were two and five years older than I was. They could remember better than I might that service dependents were evacuated on any ship that could be made available. My mother left Honolulu with the three of us on Christmas Day, just 18 days after the attack.
Our family arrived in San Francisco and then went by train to Queens, New York, to my mother’s parents’ home. Something my mother had shipped was an antiaircraft shell that had been unexploded, but was defused and which we used then as a doorstop.
One memory I have is from several months after the attack, at the dinner table. It is a memory from the point of view of a child whose understanding is incomplete.
When Mommy is talking about Pearl Harbor, I say, “I remember Daddy was in the side car with guns.”
Everybody stops and looks at me. My brother Bo says, “You can’t remember.” His voice sounds like he thinks I’m stupid.
“Can so.” I answer him.
Bo says, “You weren’t even three before Christmas. I bet you don’t even remember Christmas.”
I don’t remember Christmas. But I know I saw Daddy.
As our grandmother Mutti brings the last dessert for herself, our bigger brother Bob looks at Mommy, saying, “I bet she does remember.”
Then he says to Bo, “Anyhow, Christmas Day was nothing so special for her to remember. We had stockings, but then we had to leave on the boat. We had to wear life jackets all the time.”
Mommy says, “A ship, Bob, the SS Lurline. All the military dependents had to leave Honolulu. Our ship left in a convoy between destroyers because we were unarmed.” Then she turns toward Granddaddy at the end of the long table. She starts talking more, and faster, and louder, about the bombs.
Once again I say that I remember my daddy leaving. “Daddy wore his uniform like he is wearing in the picture in the boy’s room.”
I am thinking Daddy is wearing a hat in the picture. They call it his overseas cap. I want them to know I was not lying or stupid; so I say, “He put on his overseas cap. The other man drove the motorcycle.”
Mommy looks at me, saying, “Well, that’s right, maybe you do remember a little.” She turns away from me, telling Mutti, “I have always talked to the children about what happens, to help them remember everything, especially Pearl Harbor. First on the ship, and then all the way from San Francisco on the train.”
But Mutti’s tone is different. “We’ve all seen pictures. Her Granddaddy reads Life Magazine to that child.”
But there is no picture anywhere of what I start remembering again just like I am there. Now they don’t listen, but I can see how our driveway comes right up to under the house.
A man is on a motorcycle, with his feet on the cement. He’s not as big as my daddy is, but his clothes are the same as my Daddy’s uniform. The motorcycle has a thing on one side with wheels under it. My daddy looks up and answers me when I ask about the thing. “It’s a side car,” he says as he steps into that car and leans against his big sack behind him.
Everything looks almost the same color, the two men’s clothes, their guns, and the motorcycle. Across the front of Daddy’s side is a rifle that he holds on top of another one that was there for the other man. The rifle parts are shiny and dark. The man next to him and my Daddy both are smiling.
I want to ride on the motorcycle too. “I want to go. Take me with you, pleeasse?”
“What can a little girl like you do at the war?” Daddy says. I only wanted a ride with them, but I say very fast, “I can cook for you.”
And they laugh. I suddenly know it’s funny, too, because I can’t cook at all. Then Daddy puts on his cap. Then we all are waving, Mommy and Bob and Bo, while the motorcycle-man pushes off with his feet. I see the blue water beyond the street and down the hill far away. At the dinner table that night the boys are telling what they saw, but I can’t tell Mommy everything because I don’t know how.
Bob says, “Mommy took us to see the ships. She said that it was important, that history was happening, and we should remember. But Beth was too little to go.”
But I know I remember Daddy. I remember when he went away to the war. And I feel it all inside my own body, how everybody was scared except for Daddy. I feel the words, Pearl Harbor, while our Mommy talks loud and fast.
This part of the story confused my adult daughter when she heard it just this past year because she didn’t know why I would remember that our daddy was smiling and laughing. But it was several days between the bombing and his shipping out. He would have been encouraging to his family, not knowing when or if he might ever see them again. It was also in his nature to be a cheerful and calm person.
On the nights I remember at the dinner table my mother sometimes told of how she’d heard those “Japs” were vicious about how they would treat their prisoners, “worse than dogs.” Fearing that, she told about borrowing a gun that a neighbor lady had, and how she went into the back yard for target practice. She said she’d rather kill her own children and then herself than let those “Japs” have us.
Sometimes at night in bed when I am still very small I hear the big radio in the corner in the living room. There is a voice that talks about the “war in Europe.” I know Granddaddy is listening to it, sitting in his big chair.
Sometimes when I hear the radio, I start remembering about Hawaii, and I see a picture inside my head that I don’t understand. It is dark in the bedroom, but I am remembering a sunny day when I could see a ship far beyond my window. I see flat blue-gray water around it, and smoke coming out, all black. Beyond it is a steep hill so I can’t see more of the water. Past the ship that I can see with the smoke is the hill and the back of one other ship. And maybe that is a dream, or a picture, except it is colors, and pictures in “Life Magazine” don’t have colors. I don’t understand the picture I see because my mommy always said that from our porch we could see Honolulu Harbor, and that she had to run up over the hill to see Pearl Harbor. But it is at Pearl Harbor where they say all the ships were burning.
It will be another 50 years before I stop feeling confused about the memory of the ship with smoke. It is after my brother Bob visits Hawaii. While he’s there he has gone to the house where we lived as children and taken photos that he then brings for me to see. When he shows me the picture that he has taken out of the window of the room that was my bedroom in 1941, I can see out from the back of the house that it is on a ridge that faces just a small portion of Pearl Harbor. When I am 52 years old, a picture that has remained in my mind as an indelible image from the days of the attack has at last made some sense.
When I started college the movie “Three Faces of Eve” was shown on campus. Afterwards as I walked back alone to my dorm in the dark night, I heard a plane above. Instinctively I wanted to run and hide. Suddenly I understood why that had always been my reaction; and then that was the last time it happened.
My father came home several times before the war in the Pacific ended, and I remember some of those visits when he would arrive in his uniform.
My last childhood image of the war is when I was awakened one summer night when I was 6. Without even having me change out of my pajamas my grandfather carried me to the car where my brothers and Mutti and mother were waiting in the dark. The boys had the horn of an old Model-A car and kept pushing it to make a loud sound, AH-ROO-HA. As we drove across a bridge lots of people started to climb on the running board and everybody was shouting. We reached Times Square by walking because there were so many people. This was V-J Day, the day when Japan’s surrender was first announced, and it meant that our father would be coming home.
My dad, however, remained on mainland China after the war as a liaison for the repatriation of areas that had been under Japanese control. He returned to join the family when I was 7. He continued as a career Marine until his retirement in 1960.
As the daughter of a Marine officer, I attended 13 schools before graduating from high school.
San Diego has been my home, where I raised three daughters as a single mom. I met my husband, Russell Impagliazzo, a professor in Theory of Computer Science at UC San Diego. In 2007 he came to the Institute for Advanced Study as a visiting professor. We will return in April to Russell’s UCSD job.
Now at 72 I’m the last member of our family with a memory of the attacks on Pearl Harbor. I have written this memoir for the new generation, my parents’ 10 great grandchildren.