OCEANSIDE — The cloudy skies were suitably solemn over the Oceanside Harbor pier where fewer than a dozen Pearl Harbor survivors gathered for their annual Remembrance Day reunion Dec. 7. It was a stark contrast to the dazzlingly clear weather above the island of Oahu during the Japanese attack that started American involvement in World War II on Dec. 7, 1941.
“In my memory, the day was warm, the sun was shining, and the skies were blue,” said Bill Greenhouse, current president of Tri City Chapter 31 of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. “That was then, and this is now.”
For these survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack, the 67-year-old memories were as fresh as if they had happened just the day before.
“When that thing hit we made tracks,” Marine artilleryman Joe Walsh said. Walsh was stationed at pier 1010 behind the U.S.S. Pennsylvania. Their light machine guns were ineffective against the marauding airplanes. “We couldn’t do a doggone thing because everything we had we couldn’t use,” he said.
“We’d all just been paid the day before and servicemen at that time, when they’d been paid, every Saturday they’d go out and celebrate,” Greenhouse, a Marine private at the time, recalled. “So it was mass confusion.”
“It was a madhouse,” Harriet Holmes said. Holmes was a nurse at Tripler General Hospital, the largest military hospital in the area. She described taking in hordes of patients even as the bombs were still falling.
“As a nurse, you just do it,” Holmes said, explaining how she maintained her composure during the battle. “You see all these fractures and burn cases and everything. They need help and that’s what you’re trained to do.”
“We laid all the guys on the table and the nurses ran out of gauze and bandages,” Chapter Chaplain Adolf Kuhn said. “The nurses pulled up their skirts and petticoats and used them for bandages.”
Kuhn remembered how many soldiers had died with the word “Mother” on their lips, a fact which still haunted him. But one man’s dying words struck a different tone, particularly impressing Kuhn at the time.
“One sailor, just before he closed his eyes, asked his nurse, ‘Have they gotten the Panama Canal yet?’” Kuhn said. “He was worried that the Japs would bomb the Panama Canal.”
Dozens of friends and family spanning all ages joined the survivors. Many of them had lost loved ones during the war. For Palomar College students Amber and Alexis Thompson, it was a chance to remember their great-great-grandfather, captain of the Honolulu Fire Department, who died during the raid.
“As soon as the attack started, he ran out to the (U.S.S.) Arizona,” Amber said. “He was putting the fire out and he got shot in the back by a plane. We have his wallet with the bullet hole in it.”
“It means a lot to come here and just see the people who made it and hear their stories and thank them for what they did.” Amber added.
Every year, the survivors scatter rose petals into the water to remember their fallen friends, the number of whom has steadily increased as the decades have worn on. Ten years ago, the annual reunion would have brought in five times as many veterans.
“I used to keep a record of all the guys who died, but it got to be too tedious,” Walsh said.
Tri City Chapter 31 meets the first Sunday of every month at the Oceanside Senior Center. All are welcome.