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Pearl Harbor: 80 Years On

On this 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, I thought I would share an excerpt from my book, Sheldon Vanauken: The Man Who Received 'A Severe Mercy'. Vanauken was an eyewitness to that attack...

In the late afternoon, Van and Davy returned to their apartment in Waikiki. After showering and dressing for an evening out, they drove to Hickam Field, the army air force base near Pearl Harbor, for dinner with Allene and Jack. Van and Davy noticed as they drove along that the Christmas lights had been put up along the streets of Honolulu, but were not yet lit. Allene had asked Van and Davy to bring their record of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the Pathétique. Allene was, apparently, still haunted by the memory of a man with whom she had listened to it years before. After dinner, the couples chatted and Jack played the violin. The two men talked about the possibility of war but concluded that the Japanese would never dare to attack. Then Jack said, “How about flying with me in the morning?” Van replied, “No, I have some Navy work to do.” At the conclusion of their evening, the couples listened to Tchaikovsky’s symphony. As the last mournful notes died away, Allene said, almost prophetically, “It sounds like the dirge of a dying world.”

Van’s appointment the next morning was at the Red Hill Underground Fuel Depot, a storage facility that served the United States Armed Forces during World War II and continues to serve the military up to the present time. This facility, operated by the Navy, was under construction from 1940 to 1943 and remained secret until many years after the war. The Red Hill facility is on a small knoll overlooking Pearl Harbor from the northeast.

As Van left Davy reading at their apartment in Waikiki and drove to Red Hill he saw few signs of life; it was a sleepy, Sunday morning in Honolulu. After arriving at Red Hill, while waiting for the man he was to see, Van read the Honolulu Advertiser. The Sunday supplement feature had an article entitled Uncle Sam’s Mighty Arm in the Pacific. From Red Hill Van had a clear view of the harbor; he noted that both battle forces of the Pacific fleet were in port; the scouting force was the only one at sea.

Van continued reading the newspaper until he heard an enlisted man talking through the open window of the building where he was sitting. “Look at that big fire down at the sub base! That’s sabotage, I bet.” Van decided to stroll outside and see what was happening. The fire was not at the sub base but rather at the Naval Air Station on Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor. As Van surveyed the scene, he could see the Perry moored in the northwest part of the harbor next to the other minesweepers (USS Trever, Wasmuth & Zane) and a light minelayer (the USS Breese). The time was 7:55 AM.

Then Van saw fighter planes, with the telltale “red sun” emblem on their bodies and on their wings, heading toward battleship row. He ran out to his old Ford Roadster where he had binoculars and a .45 automatic. The first thing he saw as he focused the binoculars on the harbor was a red flicker of flame on the West Virginia. Just as he set his sights on the Arizona, the front magazines exploded. On the edge of the blast Van saw a white-clad sailor flying through the sky, arms outstretched. At the same moment, the Oklahoma was in the process of capsizing. Van realized he was watching history in the making.

Looking south, Van could see that Hickam, where he and Davy had been the night before, was being bombed heavily. He asked another officer, “Why aren’t the fighter planes from Wheeler doing anything?” The officer turned him around and pointed to a huge column of smoke ascending from Wheeler Field to the northwest. One Japanese plane flew low enough over Red Hill for Van to see a grin on the pilot’s face. Van fired six shots from his automatic without any noticeable results.

When the attack slowed, Van drove back to the apartment to check on Davy and get into uniform. As he passed Fort Shafter, an army post, he saw countless bodies of men killed in the first wave of the attack. However, when Van reached the heart of Honolulu, it seemed like an ordinary Sunday morning. Civilians were walking around, oblivious to what was happening a few miles away. The only sign that anything unusual was going on were the many Navy vehicles he saw heading quickly to the harbor.

When Van arrived back at the apartment, he found Davy still reading her book. She was completely unaware of the attack. Van explained what was happening and Davy replied, “I thought the noise was just the usual Sunday morning coast artillery practice.” Van said, “I’ve got to get to my ship. I don’t know when I’ll get back.” Davy assured him, “I’ll be alright.”

Next, Van went to fetch another officer who lived nearby. He found the officer asleep and was unable to convince him that a raid was really happening. The fellow officer refused to believe Van until he listened to the radio broadcasts confirming the report. The time was 8:40.

Together, they made a mad dash back toward the harbor in the Roadster with the top down. At certain points, shell fragments were flying all around them but only one small fragment bounced off the radiator with no detrimental effect. Traffic was heavy; they arrived at their ship’s base just as the second wave of Japanese planes was attacking. The time was 9:00 AM and the Perry had already gone to sea sometime before they arrived. Having already downed one Japanese fighter plane, the Perry took up patrol and sweeping duties near the harbor entrance.

Van and his companion were disappointed, no doubt, to have missed getting aboard their ship. However, there was plenty of work for them to do on land. At the end of day, a large rainbow arched over the burning ships in the harbor. That night, Davy huddled with a dozen other Navy wives in one of the blacked-out rooms of the apartment complex. Van didn’t get home to see Davy until Christmas night, and even that visit was brief, three or four hours at the most. In the midst of the blackout, they made eggnog by the light of the refrigerator and drank it by the light of the radio dial.

Vaus, Will. Sheldon Vanauken: The Man Who Recieved "A Severe Mercy" (pp. 61-63). Winged Lion Press. Kindle Edition.


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