It happened 78 years ago at dawn. There were more than 150 ships and service craft. They were from the United States' Pacific fleet. They lay at anchor. They sat alongside piers. They sat in dry dock. They were in Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. A surprise Japanese air and mini-submarine attack left 19 vessels sunk or badly damaged by late morning. There were hundreds of destroyed airplanes.
The toll that day among military personnel is widely known. There were 2,335 servicemen killed in the attack. Nearly half of them died on the USS Arizona. Hundreds also died aboard other stricken naval vessels. And in bombing and strafing attacks at nearby airfields.
But few people realize that 68 civilians were also killed in the attack. Japanese fighters strafed and bombed a small number. But most died in friendly fire.
The Hirasaki family suffered some of the worst losses that terrible morning. The Japanese-American family took cover in their downtown Honolulu restaurant. An errant shell struck the building. Only the mother survived. Seven other patrons taking cover there also died in the blast.
Countless children throughout Oahu saw the attack. Eight-year-old Charlotte Coe was one of those children. Charlotte shared her experiences from that fateful morning. She shared them as if they were a film. The film had been running on repeat in her mind.
Charlotte lived with her parents and five-year-old brother. His name was Chuckie. They lived in one of the 19 tidy bungalows. They lined a loop road. They were in an area known as Nob Hill. It was on the northern end of Ford Island. That island served as home to a naval air station. It was in the middle of Pearl Harbor. Their father was Charles F. Coe. He was third in command there. The Nob Hill mothers watched over their 40 or so young "Navy juniors." Their fathers went off to the air station's hangars. They went to operations buildings. And they went to aircraft operating from the island. The Coe family's house looked out on the harbor's South Channel. And it looked on the double row of moorings known as Battleship Row.
The air station and Pacific fleet defined the children's days and nights. Charlotte, Chuckie and their friends often ran out the nearby dock. They went to meet officers. They were disembarking from the ships. Charlotte would lie in bed at night. She could hear voices. They came from the movies. They were being shown to sailors on board. She recalled that she and the other children lived "free as birds" on Ford Island. They took a daily boat to school. It was on the Oahu mainland. Pearl Harbor's lush tropical shoreline served as their playground. That changed after the Pearl Harbor attack.
Ford Island was something else. It was a target. There were eight battleships. They were moored along Battleship Row. They were the Japanese attackers' primary objective when they flew toward Pearl Harbor. That was on the morning of December 7, 1941.
The first explosion was at 7:48 that morning. It woke Charlotte from a sound sleep. "Get up!" she remembered her father shouting. "The war's started." Their family raced for shelter. So did families from the other houses. The shelter was in a former artillery emplacement. It was dug beneath a neighboring house. They could see a khaki-colored airplane. It had red circles under its wings. It zoomed past so low that Charlotte saw the pilot's face.
The bunker was dimly lit. It was concrete-lined. The children had often played inside the bunker. They called it "the dungeon." The Nob Hill families practiced how they would hide there in case of an air raid. Chuckie could not resist the noise once inside. He could hear explosions. He ventured outside. Japanese bullets zinged around him. Charles hauled him back into the bunker.
Charles returned home. He went to get dressed. That was before helping organize a defense. Before he got there a massive explosive knocked him to the ground. The Arizona's detonation rocked the walls and floors inside the children's dungeon shelter. Charlotte shook her fist. "Those dirty Germans!" she recalled saying. "Hush, ChaCha," said her mother quietly. "It's the Japanese."
It didn't take long for survivors to arrive. They came from the blasted and battered battleships. They came into the bunker. They were mostly young men. They were wide-eyed. They were scared. They were coated in oil. They were the lucky ones. Others had been hit by blasts. They had been hit by flying debris. Others were strafed. Some were badly burned. Charlotte vividly remembered these injured men. 70 years later.
A shivering sailor propped himself against a wall next to her. Charlotte remembered unzipping her favorite blue quilted bathrobe. She handed it to him. He wrapped his body in it. He thanked her.
Charlotte looked around when she finally exited her former playhouse. Ships were in flames. They were submerged. They were capsized. Fires burned everywhere. The air was thick with acrid black smoke.
When Charlotte Coe Lemann recounted those few hours, the decades disappeared in an instant. Even as the attack was unfolding, she said, she knew that "A lot of those men I'd seen coming along the dock from ships were never coming again."
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