Sunday, 7 December 2014

Pearl Harbor Memories

Disasters can be great prompts for family history interviews. Many years ago, when my daughter was in high school, she used Pearl Harbor Day as the basis for interviewing some of the older members of our family.  After this we also did some interviews based around the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962), the Kennedy Assassination (22 November 1963), and the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.  Perhaps other infamous historical events can be used as similar interview prompts in other countries.

The USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor
The American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was attacked by the Japanese on 7 December 1941, a day President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed “… a date that shall live in infamy.”   This was over 70 years ago, so very few relatives will be able to remember this date.  Here are the transcribed notes my daughter made:
"Where were you when you heard that Pearl Harbor had been bombed and what was your reaction?"

Phyllis (age 67 years at the time of the interview): I remember that day because I was six years old and the only thing I remember about it really is my mother crying because my brother was..., I had five brothers and the oldest one was sixteen I think at the time... and she knew that he was going to have to go to war. That really upset my mother. [Two of her five brothers ended up in the service; one in the Pacific and the other in Occupied Europe]

Shirley (age 76 years at the time at the time of the interview): I remember that. I was standing in the kitchen, ironing, I was ironing a blouse, getting ready to go to church. I heard the news, and I couldn't believe it. I couldn't absorb what it actually meant to me. It really didn't all sink in until later, but then I heard Kate Smith coming on and singing “God Bless America.” And standing there crying my eyes out as I ironed, because it was so touching. I was beginning to realize what it was going to mean to the country.

Robert (age 77 years at the time of this interview, he has since passed away): I was listening to a football game at my house on 7 Dearborn Avenue [Beverly, Massachusetts]. I was about your age, in high school. And my reaction was “Japan? Attacking us? We’ll have them wiped out by Christmas time.”

Shirley: At the time.... I’m a nurse. And I was taking care of a lady whose father was the ambassador to Japan. At the time of the war, before, and during the war. And Ambassador Grew, his name was, from Manchester (MA), and he was... She showed me lots of papers and things that he had written about what he claims in writing. And they showed me a copy of the letter, the family owns. That he had told the president, that Japan was about to do something, he didn’t know that Pearl Harbor was actually going to happen, but it was going to be Pearl Harbor. But he knew because of his position, and contacts, that there was about to be some sort of a war with Japan, and he was ignored completely. When he went and had an interview, I saw the letter that he wrote to the president, Roosevelt, and told him what was happening, and what steps he thought should be taken. Because, perhaps, president Roosevelt was old and ill at the time, he wasn’t using good judgment and he never furthered that information on. And then Pearl Harbor happened.

[See this link to a Wikipedia article about US Ambassador Joseph Grew (1880 – 1965),  who was interned by the Japanese following the Pearl Harbor attack ]

Note: I still have the audio tapes of my daughter’s interviews. I remember she was very serious about the assignment, since September 11th, 2001 was only just two years earlier during her first week of high school.  This is especially memorable because my uncle has passed away since the interview. My aunt, uncle and Mom spoke for over an hour about the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor and the home front during World War II. By the end of the World War II, my uncle Robert was serving as a paratrooper medic in Europe.

About ten years later I was able to take my mother to Hawaii with me, and one of the places she most wanted to visit was Pearl Harbor.  It was fun taking her to see the sights, and very moving to visit the USS Arizona with her and to hear more of her memories of that time period in history.  The museum at Pearl Harbor had some wonderful exhibits of the war and of the home front.  Visiting museums like this with your parents and grandparents can lead to lots of great family history memories. 

Vincent and I at Pearl Harbor with Mom, 2012


  1. What a wonderful idea to gather memories from relatives who felt personally the impact of significant events in our national and international history.

  2. Their memories are so poignant. Enjoyed this post Heather.

  3. I remember my mother talking about hearing about the bomb dropped on Hiroshima but I never interviewed her. I wish I had. I don't have her voice at all.


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