Memories of Pearl Harbor
In 1941, Lynn Thomas was 15 years old and living on a sugar plantation near the U.S. naval station at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Had it not been for several tall palm trees, the station would have been visible from her home.
Now 83 and living in Chico, she remembers the morning of Dec. 7 vividly, how a radio announcement broke in during a Chinese opera to alert listeners to the attack and then later seeing the cloud of black smoke that rose over the harbor.
By the end of the day 2,333 American servicemen were dead and 1,139 wounded. Four American ships and 188 aircraft had been destroyed and sunk.
Because she was so young when it happened, Thomas did not truly understand the implications of the event—that it was the outbreak of what would become the biggest and most deadly war in human history. “I really feel now that I had no idea what was going on,” Thomas said.
One of the most memorable things about the day was that few people believed the attack was real. “The radio kept saying, ‘We are under attack,'” Thomas said. “But we were so used to military drills that no one believed it.”
Everyone just assumed that the explosions were blank shells, which the military often practiced with in the harbor. Her own family became aware that the attack was real earlier than most because of their neighbor.
“I just remember he came running across the street, and he said, ‘Those are Jap planes.’ They flew so low you could see the big red suns on them.”
Thomas spent the day of the attack with her family huddled under the eaves of a neighbor’s house watching shrapnel rain down.
“I remember at one point a big piece of shrapnel fell on the neighbor’s grill,” Thomas said. “I went out to grab it. It was going to be my souvenir of the war, and my mother just about …” She laughed at the memory.
Thomas’ mother, who originally had moved to Kauai to be a school teacher, did not handle the stress of the attack well. The family slept on neighbors’ couches for the next two nights because Thomas’ mother was too scared to go home. When they did return to the house, she slept under the bed while Thomas and her father slept on top of it.
At the time, many white families in Hawaii had Japanese-American maids. On the morning following the attack many women fired their maids, despite the fact that they were American citizens and had been born in Hawaii.
“When our maid came creeping up to our back door,” Thomas said, “Mother told the maid she had to take charge while she went to work for the Red Cross.”
Thomas was in high school at the time, and she remembers that school was shut down for a couple of weeks following the attack because military personnel had commandeered it.
She also remembers that for weeks after the attack there wasn’t much for children to do. At night there were mandatory blackouts. “We had only one room we could be in at home,” Thomas said. “I remember all there was to do was go see this one Sonja Henie movie called Sun Valley Serenade.”
A few months after the attack, Thomas’ parents decided to move back to the mainland. “My father had had enough,” she explained.
The family sailed on a military transport ship to San Francisco, and Thomas spent the rest of her childhood in California.
“When we rode into San Francisco, there were people standing on the Golden Gate Bridge shouting, ‘Welcome to America,'” Thomas said. “I thought to myself, ‘We already lived in America.'”
Although the attack was traumatic at the time, she says she thinks of it less often than she used to. “Unless you’ve ever gone through something like that,” she said, “you can’t possibly imagine.”