Battle at Honolulu
Legend has it, the Japanese bombed and strafed civilians on
Hawaii December 7th, 1941. Wartime censors prevented the real story of this
"battle" from being known. The truth is a tale of confusion, blind
anger and a lot of fire-power; a story of rumors and tragic mistakes.
"What goes up, must come down" is the saying. Look at Pearl Harbor's geography and location of the ships and imagine you are shooting at planes coming in low. Where will your shells go when they miss your target? The standard Navy anti-aircraft shell was a 5-inch projectile with a fuse to be set by the crew. Attacking planes at 400 ft? Set the fuse for 400 feet and it will explode at that level. In the early confusion, many Navy personnel forgot to set the fuses on AA shells and in many cases fusing was useless as Fuchida's force attacked at wave-top level with torpedo planes. An un-fused shell will explode on contact with a plane (or a house or a car).
Let me first defend our service men and explain if one has even been shot at, the focus of return fire is exclusively the target, not what's behind it. Inexperienced, scared sailors and army personnel had a bad case of "tunnel-vision" and should be forgiven for wild shooting. Battle-hardened veterans knew better. A "tin-can man" once told me that after Leyte Gulf he could check fusing, calculate aim, fire rapidly, and wonder what was for dinner all at the same time!
Civilians panicked when 5-inch shells exploded in streets and yards. Thousands took to their cars to flee to the Highlands. Residents of the "Heights," fearing enemy paratroopers, fled to Honolulu. Streets soon grid-locked with two-way traffic. Shells landed amid stalled automobiles, increasing panic. Fire engines and ambulances raced along sidewalks and yards desperately attempting to reach their destination. Civilians with hunting rifles stood in roads, shooting upwards. The noise of rifles and explosions, mingled with the sound of screams, combined to push the panic level higher. Water mains broke, sending geysers into the air, adding to the surrealistic atmosphere. Houses exploded, sending many outdoors, dragging their furniture with them. At the same time, many ran indoors fearing shrapnel. Others grabbed their children, blindly looking for shelter. No place seemed safe.
As Japanese planes flew low over Honolulu, shells and shrapnel were everywhere. Many civilians assumed that Japanese were responsible, others knew better. Remember the code of "Bushido" inherent in Japanese pilots -- they weren't going to waste their bombs and bullets on civilians (or oil tanks for that matter) when juicy targets such as battleships and cruiser awaited. To be sure, some did strafe civilians, but 90% of reported civilian bombing came from us. Friendly fir or not, the origin mattered little when people were suddenly torn apart around you.
When the attack ended that morning, firing erupted continually throughout the day. Someone shoots at a plane (ours), then everyone joins in. Soon Pearl Harbor was again erupting in AA fire-starting the cycle of panic all over again. Then darkness fell and the real chaos began.
It started with the rumors. Most believed the attack a prelude to invasion. The Navy deposited heavily armed, jittery sailors, recently blasted into homelessness, onto remote island "posts." They saw "Japs everywhere." The "Japs" were often marine and army sentries thinking the same. We shot at ourselves all night, the darkness made worse by the enforced black-out. Native Hawaiians suddenly looked like enemy paratroopers. Many were tragically shot. Then there is the dark secret of Pearl Harbor -- the vengeance taken upon the large Japanese population.
The local Japanese soon learned to hide. It wasn't safe for anyone to venture out in the dark. Trees were being shot at. Sentry ears, straining in the amplified silence, challenged "night noises" previously ignored. Many of the Islands Japanese population knew no English, and when "captured" were assumed the enemy. A Syracuse New York Marine veteran told me of one hapless Japanese, shot on the beach and buried in the sand with his legs sticking out. When a young Lieutenant said "you can't do that," he replied, "he's a god-damn Jap -- you dig him out!" Or was he a gardener in a jump suit?
One shot in the dark would set off a chain reaction of shooting, leading to repeated reports of invasion. Most island radios received police bands. Rumors started by the military were passed to civilians who reported them to the police. Police unwittingly broadcast it on their system, spiraling the rumors to more natives. Japanese saboteurs were reported to have poisoned reservoir; they were landing off Barbers Point. Paratroopers were dropping on St. Louis Heights and Nuuanu Valley, Grovers Mill New Jersey after Orsen Welles "War of the Worlds" broadcast has some idea of Honolulu's suffering, but Oahu had more fire-power and blood. The true wonder of this night is more weren't killed. Those who died were simply added to a casualty list - indirect victims of the Japanese attack.
In some ways Americans have not changed much. Small acts of revenge took place that night. One veteran recalled shooting holes into a hated officer's Quonset hut ceiling during the confusion. Every time it rained at night this Lout was sure to get wet! Others were sent to guard the meat lockers of the beached USS Nevada. Every time shooting erupted, they emptied the clips of their assigned weapons. Being new to them, they thought the sound of Thompson submachine guns and scatter shotguns to be "cool-dadio." Some looters from the USS Tennessee crawled over to the abandoned, sunken West Virginia, and broke into lockers. This caused so much hard feeling that sailors from these two ships clashed throughout the war, "Hey, you're from the Tennessee? I owe you this [sound of a fist]." Oil-soaked sailors were sent to officer's quarters after losing their ships. Here they would shower and put on fresh clothing. Officers uniforms disappeared, along with a few wallets. That some would take advantage of a bad situation is as old as civilization.
The "Battle of Honolulu" is a seldom mentioned subject. With the benefit of hindsight and a little knowledge of human nature, one can understand the chaos of December 7th and 8th. My father lived through it, and his description is apt, "Son it was a cluster-fuck of the first order!"
Copyright ©2000-2020 Roger Hare. All rights reserved.