It happened 78 years ago at dawn. More than 150 ships and service craft of the United States' Pacific fleet lay at anchor. They sat alongside piers, or in dry dock in Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. By late morning, the surprise Japanese air and mini-submarine attack had left 19 vessels sunk or badly damaged. There were hundreds of destroyed airplanes.
The toll that day among military personnel is widely known. Of the 2,335 servicemen killed in the attack, nearly half 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. That happened when shells from Coast Guard ships and anti-aircraft batteries on shore aimed at the Japanese fell into Honolulu and elsewhere on the island.
The Hirasaki family suffered some of the worst losses that terrible morning. The Japanese-American mother, father and their three children, together with a cousin, sheltered in the family's 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 also witnessed the attack. Eight-year-old Charlotte Coe was one of those children. Charlotte recounted her experiences that fateful morning as if they were a film that had been running continuously in her mind ever since.
Charlotte lived with her parents and five-year-old brother, Chuckie, in one of the 19 tidy bungalows. They lined a loop road 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 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, operations buildings and aircraft operating from the island. The Coe family's house looked out on the harbor's South Channel and 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 disembarking from the ships. Lying in bed at night, Charlotte could hear voices. They came from the movies being shown to sailors on board. Until the Pearl Harbor attack, she recalled that she and the other children lived "free as birds" on Ford Island. They took a daily boat to school on the Oahu mainland. Pearl Harbor's lush tropical shoreline served as their playground.
But Ford Island was something else. It was a target. There were eight battleships moored along Battleship Row. They were the Japanese attackers' primary objective when they flew toward Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941.
The first explosion at 7:48 that morning woke Charlotte from a sound sleep. "Get up!" she remembered her father shouting. "The war's started." Their family and families from the other houses raced for shelter. It was in a former artillery emplacement dug beneath a neighboring house. As they ran, a khaki-colored airplane with red circles under its wings zoomed past so low that Charlotte saw the pilot's face.
Before that day, the children had often played inside the dimly lit, concrete-lined bunker. They called it "the dungeon." The Nob Hill families practiced how they would hide in case of an air raid. Once inside, Chuckie could not resist the noise. He could hear explosions and ventured outside. This time Japanese bullets zinged around him before Charles hauled him back.
Charles returned home to get dressed 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."
Before long, survivors from the blasted and battered battleships began filtering ashore. They came into the bunker. They were mostly young men. They were wide-eyed and scared. They were coated in oil. They were the lucky ones. Others had been hit by the blasts and flying debris. Others were strafed or horribly burned. Seventy years later, Charlotte still vividly remembered these injured men. Hidden in the bunker, she saw men succumb to their wounds.
A shivering sailor propped himself against a wall next to her. Charlotte remembered unzipping her favorite blue quilted bathrobe and handing it to him. He wrapped his body in it and thanked her.
As Charlotte exited her former playhouse at last, she looked around. Ships were in flames. They were submerged and capsized. Fires burned everywhere and 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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