On Dec. 7, 1941, American military installations on the Hawaiian island of Oahu were attacked without warning by naval air forces of the Empire of Japan. The event, forever remembered as "Pearl Harbor Day," stands as one of the most important dates in our history. The lives and fates of millions of Americans were instantly affected and the course of a great nation was altered. They included many Oregonians and Portlanders.
No American alive then will ever forget where they were when they learned of the attack. Jim Manning and a friend were duck hunting near Gig Harbor, Washington, when they spied a man across the lake waving frantically at them. Thinking that there was an emergency of some sort, or that they were being kicked off the land, they hiked over. When they reached him, the man blurted "Have you heard? The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor!" Manning looked at his friend, puzzled. "Who's Pearl Harbor?"
He learned soon enough and went on to pilot B-17 bombers in Europe.
Oregonians were swept up in the united effort. Then a young student at the University of Illinois in Urbana, Portlander Doug Southgate — who was later to pilot transport aircraft in the South Pacific — remembered the moment on that fateful Sunday when he learned of the sneak attack. Emerging from a movie theater near campus that Sunday afternoon, he was amazed to see people running through the streets, shouting. The bars were full with nervous students. When he was told what had happened, he knew that he had to join the fight.
The next day, after President Franklin Roosevelt had asked Congress for a declaration of war, the university held a massive meeting of all students in the fieldhouse. University president Arthur Willard addressed the gathered students. He told them, in effect, "We are at war. I know that you men will want to immediately enlist. This university will support you in your effort. A large number of you will not return from this war. For those who do, your places at this institution will be reserved. Good luck to you."
Portland attorney Jack Cramer was then a first-year student at the University of Oregon. On that Sunday he was with his family in their Eugene home. As he came down the stairs he saw his parents sitting close to their radio, listening intently to the sketchy news reports of the attack. His mother was in tears. Turning to her son, she said, "I know that both of you boys will be going to war." She was correct. Both Jack Cramer and his brother later served in combat. Jack flew 35 bombing missions over Japan in a B-29 named the "Goin' Jessie." Both survived the conflict.
Jefferson High School student Lorraine Stromgren was in her family's home in Northeast Portland doing her homework on the dining room table when news of the attack was broadcast. "We were stunned," she recalled. The event made such an impression on Stromgren that, eight decades later, she still remembered what she was wearing at the time. "It was a red sweater and a navy blue skirt. Isn't it odd that I would remember that?"
She also recalled that the next day at Jefferson High, the principal conducted an assembly of students. He spoke directly to the boys and begged them to delay enlisting in the military "until they finished their diplomas." But, as Stromgren remembered it, "They all joined up, anyway."
Her relatives in Minnesota called her family and begged them to immediately move back to the Midwest "where it was safe." They were convinced that she was "living in Indian country," way out in Oregon, and was in grave danger from a Japanese attack.
Nearly everyone who lived along the West Coast recalls one thing: an immediate blackout was implemented. Streetlights were extinguished. Wardens who patrolled the city at night made certain that not a ray of light leaked from any home or business. No one was certain if, where, or when another Japanese air attack might come. Even an outright land invasion was not out of the question, so all Oregon beaches were patrolled by the National Guard. The many aircraft plants and defense facilities situated near the coastline seemed to make such an attack a near-certainty. Soon even barrage balloons were floating over important sites.
Several Oregonians did not need to enlist or wait to go to war. They were right there in Hawaii when the Japanese planes swept over their targets.
Witness to history
At 0800 on that Sunday morning Portlander and Navy chief Richard "Dick" Lillig and his wife Margaret were in their Pearl City apartment overlooking the harbor when they were abruptly awakened by a loud commotion. When Lillig looked down on the harbor from their lanai, he immediately knew what was happening, though he was dumbfounded at what he saw — heavy, black smoke rose in the direction of Ford Island and Battleship Row. The muted-red circles on the wings of passing low-flying aircraft told him that the United States was being attacked by Japanese aircraft.
His ship, the repair vessel USS Rigel, was tied up at its pier at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, a short distance from Ford Island and Battleship Row. Although he was technically off-duty, he did not need to be officially summoned to know that his duty status had changed. He quickly donned his uniform and headed down to his ship. But how was he to get there? The streets were a madhouse of activity, the streetcar service had been interrupted and it was much too far to walk. So Lillig summoned a taxi and, with other sailors sharing the cab, rushed to his duty station. They likely were the first serviceman since French soldiers in World War I to go to war in a taxi.
Once at the Rigel, Lillig faced a critical situation: The ship had been repairing Navy PT boats and several of the craft were perched on the ship's deck awaiting service. They were sitting ducks for the Zeros that were streaking by on their way to attack the ships that were tied up along Battleship Row.
Climbing up into a dockside crane, Lillig hoisted these small craft off of the Rigel's deck and into the water where they could maneuver out of harm's way. In the process he recalled that, from his high perch in the crane's control cab, he could look down on the passing Japanese attackers. They came so close that he could even make out the features of the airmen's faces.
For reasons that are still debated, the Japanese failed to attack the Navy's repair facilities. They also declined to strike the vast oil storage tanks. Both omissions were to come back to haunt them in the coming months.
Lillig went on to earn a commission and to serve on multiple vessels during his time in the Pacific War, notably the USS Yorktown CV-10. He was involved in air attacks on Wake Island, Makin, the invasion of Tarawa, and notably the famous air strike of Truk Lagoon, where U.S. Navy aircraft destroyed more than 250 enemy aircraft and about 45 ships. They all remain in place there today. The event, officially named "Operation Hailstone" came to be called "The Japanese Pearl Harbor" because of the total surprise that was achieved.
With the Yorktown, Lillig went on to participate in strikes on Iwo Jima, The Philippines, Okinawa and even Japan itself. With the crew on battle stations, the carrier patrolled outside Tokyo Bay as the formal document of surrender was signed aboard the USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945. Lillig recalled the sky being "black with American planes" that overflew the ceremonies ending World War II. They were aloft not only to demonstrate Allied strength, but also to protect against suspected Japanese duplicity, much as the Pearl Harbor attack itself had been, some three-and-a-half years before.
Solace amid chaos
In recent times, the Rev. William "Bill" Wagner held the position of Rector for Portland's Trinity Episcopal Church. Serving as a Navy corpsman aboard the hospital ship USS Solace on Dec. 7, 1941, his duties involved events of a more violent nature.
The Solace was moored in Pearl Harbor, just off the northeast point of Ford Island, a short distance from the moored battleships USS Nevada and USS Arizona. Up until that day, Wagner had been enjoying Hawaii's spectacular climate, which was a far cry from the severe weather of his home state of Iowa and of Illinois, where he'd been trained. On Saturday night, Dec. 6, he and his shipmates had spent a raucous liberty ashore and were looking forward to routine Sunday duty.
Wagner arose early to go on duty. While he was relieving the master-at-arms, he heard what sounded like gunfire and was confused. Who could be taking target practice this early on a Sunday?
His question was answered when a low-flying, gray aircraft swept by the ship. The red-circle markings gave it away as being Japanese. Wagner knew immediately that an attack was underway. Shortly the ship's loudspeaker broke in with a booming voice. Wagner said he'll never forget the moment when it was announced, "…being attacked by hostile aircraft…this is no s—t !!"
For still-unknown reasons, the Solace, painted white and glaring in the tropical sunshine, was passed over by the marauders. Were they ordered to spare it for humanitarian reasons? Likely not, as the nearby Naval hospital was attacked.
Instead, the Solace remained at her mooring while its medical staff got to work. They began treating critically wounded seamen who had jumped or were blown over the sides of their ships. The powerful blasts from torpedoes, bombs and exploding ordnance ruptured several ships' fuel tanks. Thick, burning oil spread out over the surface of the harbor. Many men managed to swim the distance to the Solace, where they were pulled aboard. Some were so badly burned that when lifted from the water, their flesh separated from their bones.
Wagner was part of a crew of a motor launch that was lowered from the Solace. As the attack was still raging overhead, they located seaman floating in the water who were too exhausted to manage the swim to safety. He recalls that the 300 beds of the Solace were quickly taken up by wounded and dying men. Decks, passageways and all open spaces were occupied by casualties, becoming makeshift wards. Many young men died before they could be evacuated to the Naval Hospital ashore.
When the attack at last subsided, Wagner could survey the massive damage that had been inflicted. The USS Oklahoma had capsized and crews were cutting through her upturned hull in an effort to rescue trapped sailors. The USS Nevada had tried to make it out of the harbor, but was forced to run itself aground to avoid blocking the main channel. And perhaps the most famous ship of the Pearl Harbor attack, the USS Arizona, was literally blown out of the water when her forward magazine exploded. Her hull remains today in the place where it settled into the harbor's mud. It serves as a memorial and gravesite for the many men who perished aboard her.
Wagner said he could only feel shock and dismay. His ship had entered this same Harbor just weeks before, on a bright Oct. 27, Navy Day. At that time all vessels were decked out, freshly painted with signal flags flying high. Now many of these proud ships were smoking hulks.
Reasons and fallout
Never again would the United States isolate itself from international affairs. Three-and-a-half years after the attack, when the WWII finally was won, the United States stood alone as the world's most powerful state.
Why would Japan set off on such a destructive course, one that resulted in its defeat and total destruction? In brief, Japan's goal was to drive Western powers out of what it considered to be its sphere of influence; Asia and the Western Pacific and to secure its access to much-needed raw materials. During the 1930s, its invasions of Manchuria and China, coupled with reports of widespread human rights abuses including genocide, had resulted in the United States placing trade embargoes on Japan for certain raw materials. These included steel and oil.
As Japan produced no oil of its own, it was forced to look outside for its supply of this indispensable commodity. Seizing the Dutch-controlled Southeast Asian petroleum fields looked tempting. However, Japan felt that it first had to neutralize American forces based in the Philippines, Mariana Islands (Guam) and, of course the naval base in Hawaii. So in one bold strike, all of these locations were attacked.
Japanese planes struck their Pearl Harbor targets at precisely 0755. American military personnel had just begun to stir on a beautiful, tropical Sunday morning and complete surprise was achieved. The air attack was hugely successful; several large warships were either sunk or heavily damaged.
The attack triggered outrage amongst Americans as had never before been seen. In but an instant, our nation pulled together and focused on a common goal: defeat the enemy and seek retribution.
Following this disaster, America's shock and somber mood were short-lived. Intense resolve replaced them. In time, all but two of the stricken battleships were repaired and they re-joined the fleet. Bill and the Solace went on to serve as a sanctuary for the wounded of many battles of the Pacific war. It was never attacked.
When interviewed many years later, Wagner could recall the attack on Pearl Harbor as vividly as if it had happened just the day before. Nearly all Americans who were alive at the time can remember where they were at the exact time and place when they heard the news.
Everyone realized life had changed.
Don Bourgeois is a freelance writer whose works have appeared often in Pamplin Media Group's annual Salute to Veterans special section.
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