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Pearl Harbor: Kids who experienced the attack remember what they saw

December 05, 20235 min read

“Yesterday, December 7th, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” - President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Pearl Harbor was not only a military base. It was also a home to many families with kids who went to school and played in the sunshine. The sound of planes was familiar to those who lived there because Navy pilots had to practice flying. Families practiced rushing to shelter if an air raid ever happened.

Then, on that quiet Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, everything changed.

Most families were just starting their day. Some kids were still asleep while others were playing outside when the attack happened. The peacefulness of Pearl Harbor was shattered. The sound of planes and explosions filled the air, and this time, the sight of the planes were not familiar. They had red circles on the wings – a sign that the planes were Japanese. Families were suddenly faced with something they had never experienced before.

Some kids told their stories many years later in interviews:

Charlotte Coe

Ford Island was a special place in Pearl Harbor where naval families like that of 8-year-old Charlotte Coe and her little brother, Chuckie, lived. Their dad was an important person there, third in command! The children's days were filled with the air station and Pacific fleet, and they even took a daily boat to school on the Oahu mainland.

Charlotte and her family were fast asleep when a big explosion woke them up. Her dad shouted, "The war’s started," and everyone rushed for shelter, like they had practiced. But this time it was different. They heard explosions happening outside and it lasted a long time.

When Charlotte finally stepped out of her bunker, she saw a heartbreaking sight. Ships were on fire, some were underwater, and the air was filled with thick, black smoke. Bodies were in the water, and the once-playful shore was now a scene of devastation. She knew that many of the sailors she used to see along the dock would never return. A sailor who had no clothes was shivering when he leaned against the wall next to her. Charlotte took off her bathrobe and gave it to him.

Chick Takara

Since it was the Japanese soldiers who were attacking Americans, Japanese-Americans were treated like the enemy. Chick Takara was 12 years old at the time. He helped his family by earning money as a dish washer in Honolulu. He was at work the morning of December 7, 1941 when he thought he saw the Navy doing drills with live ammo. He saw hundreds of gray and white powder puffs in the sky.

His boss knew better and sent him home. Chick’s mother was outside doing laundry when Chick ran to her and shouted, "This is war, Mommy!" Then a streak crossed the sky, and a bomb hit a neighbor's house – with the neighbors still in it!

Chick's father, mother and their six children headed for the nearby stadium. His father said that, whatever happened, they would face it together as a family. But the principal of a local Japanese school saw them and offered them shelter.

The Takara family spent the next weeks at the school and slept on tatami mats. The school's auditorium became a place for Japanese residents. They were all considered enemy aliens and had to turn in their belongings like radios and binoculars.

When they were finally allowed to check their home, Chick found some coins melted together. It was a lasting reminder of that challenging time.

Remember those who lost their lives as well as those who lived through it

These stories teach us about the strength, resilience, and kindness displayed by individuals, even young ones, during times of adversity. Pearl Harbor, with its echoes of bravery and sacrifice, continues to remind us of the importance of unity and compassion, especially in the face of unexpected challenges. The children of Pearl Harbor, with their enduring memories, contribute to the lessons that history imparts to us all.

As we reflect on the events of December 7, 1941, let us honor the 2,335 servicemen who lost their lives. Let us also remember the bravery of everyone who faced this horrifying and unexpected moment in our nation’s history.

Recommended Reading

History Smashers: Pearl Harbor book cover

History Smashers: Pearl Harbor by Kate Messner

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched a completely unpredictable attack on the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Right? Well, that's not quite the real deal. Some military experts had suggested that Pearl Harbor was a likely target. There were other warning signs, too, but nobody paid much attention. From the first wave of the Japanese bombers to the United States' internment of thousands of Japanese Americans, acclaimed author Kate Messner smashes history by exploring the little-known truths behind the story of Pearl Harbor and its aftermath.

Attacked!: Pearl Harbor and the Day War Came to America by Marc Favreau. book cover

Attacked!: Pearl Harbor and the Day War Came to America by Marc Favreau.

A single day changed the course of history: December 7, 1941. Nobody in America knew Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor was coming. Nobody was prepared for the aftermath. It became a defining moment from which the country never truly recovered. This unflinching narrative puts readers on the ground in Pearl Harbor through the stories of real people who experienced the attack and its after effects.

Learn more about the attack on Pearl Harbor and President Roosevelt's response at:

National Archives Educational Updates

Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day
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