A Pearl Harbor Day piece by my brother
A TRUE STORY OF TWO GIRLS ON ONE DAY by James R. Olsen
This is copyrighted material (James R. Olsen) and material jointly copyrighted by James R. Olsen and Valarie J. Anderson. It includes material created by Valarie J. Anderson and material from an upcoming book.)
DECEMBER 7, 1941 HONOLULU — 4604 KAHALA AVENUE
She was afraid to wake him up, “the sleeping tiger,” she called him. But she had to get ready, which is why she was rattling through the bathroom. Luckily there was also the sound of the distant roar of radial engines chewing through the air this morning. They sounded like a swarm of nagging mosquitoes trying to weave its way through the wooden Venetian blinds.
Military maneuvers again. Everyone had gotten used to the new white noise on the island. The new sounds mixed with the symphony of a feathered chorus of mynas and red-crested cardinals, accompanied by the base notes of the rhythmic waves splashing up the gentle slope of the beach a block from the house.
Barbara was headed for choir practice at the Royal Palace — practicing for a concert that he had arranged to be broadcast to the mainland — a highlight of her senior year at Theodore Roosevelt High.
The phone rang; it hung on the kitchen wall. Barbara ran to grab it. The man’s “voice was breathless and excited,” insisting she get her father on the phone. She padded a dozen steps to her father’s bedroom door.
“Dad, Bill Steed is on the phone, and he says it’s an emergency.” Listening to make sure her dad was getting up, Barbara hurried to the phone and told Bill he was on his way, then swept out the front door, thinking, “Right now I had to get out of there to catch the bus. It only came by twice on Sundays; I couldn’t afford to miss it.”
When she stepped out the door her face was bathed with moist, salty air, like a warm washcloth held to her cheeks, scented with a fragrance that defined the island as much as its towering mountains running along the island’s spine. The smack of the screen door punctuated her departure. The bus stop, at the corner of Kahala Street and Hunakai Avenue, was just a few steps down the walkway in front of their house. Barbara set her course to avoid the drifting sand, her yellow dress fluttering in the morning breeze. She hopped on the 12-passenger open-air Jitney that had just pulled up.
George swung his feet out of bed. Bill Steed was his assistant, a man entirely reliable and competent. He knew, hell, his entire office knew, Sundays were sacred. It must indeed be an emergency. He may have paused to strap on leg braces as he grabbed his cane and went to the kitchen. He’d come a long way since getting Polio almost a decade earlier.
George picked up the handset as he hooked the crook of his cane in his pocket. Without preamble, Bill blurted, “Pearl Harbor is under attack,” the muffled sound of exploding bombs backing up his words. George, now fully awake, braced himself against the doorjamb as the sound of the bus carrying his daughter pulling away from the curb seeped into his consciousness.
7:53 AM – FORD ISLAND – NOB HILL – COE QUARTERS
“Get up! The war’s started,”1 shouted Charlotte and Chuckie’s father, Commander Charles Coe. The sounds of explosions rang in their ears. They threw on robes over their 1 Wortman, 1941: Fighting the Shadow War: A Divided America in a World at War, Kindle location 5156; Wortman, "The Children of Pearl Harbor." pajamas, put on slippers, and ran outside. Charlotte gazed upward as she was going out the door and saw a khaki airplane with big red circles on the bottom of its wings; the plane zoomed so low she could see the pilot. He didn’t shoot.
Ford Island, 441-acres of delta land, sits right in the middle of Pearl Harbor, a perfect location for a Navy airfield, for fleet moorings and for 19 Officers quarters to house the PBY squadron of Patrol Wing Two. Hawaiians called the island Mokuʻumeʻume which translates to "isle of attraction" or "island of strife."
Eight-year-old Charlotte Coe and her 5-year-old brother, Chuchie were two of about forty Navy kids who had the run of Nob Hill on Ford Island. Her father was Lieutenant Commander Coe, Admiral Bellinger’s War Plans officer. They played on the palm tree studded, grassy shoreline, to the background music of gentle waves lapping the narrow beach. She later said they lived “free as birds.”
The children rode a boat to school every weekday morning, met the ships when they docked, only a stone’s throw away, and scared themselves in the dark concrete bunker, an old gun mount that served as the foundation for Quarters K, Admiral Bellinger’s home, which was outfitted to serve as the senior officer housing’s air-raid shelter. The kids called it “the dungeon.”
They had practiced the drill. Now they ran a hundred yards down the curved driveway into Charlotte’s dungeon, Chuckie in the arms of his father. The admiral hustled in right behind them. When Charlotte’s father put down Chuckie, Chuckie could not help himself – he ran outside to see the excitement. Bullets were now flying. Her father tackled him and brought him back kicking and crying. Charlotte’s mom pinned him to the floor. Bellinger said, “Come on Charlie! Let’s go down to headquarters.” As they bolted for the car, Coe said, “Admiral, at least let me put my pants on.” Bellinger drove the hundred yards to Coe’s quarters, “like a bat out of hell.” Coe grabbed his pants – then they sped off to headquarters. Soon the bunker was crowded with neighbors. Charlotte’s mother still had a hold of Chuckie when Charlotte yelled, with a fist in the air, “Those dirty Germans!” Her mother said, “Hush, ChaCha. It’s the Japanese.” ~
8:58 AM – FORD ISLAND – NOB HILL – THE DUNGEON
Hollywood would be hard pressed to come up with a horror film like this. Sailors came stumbling, walking like zombies, eyes in an unfocused thousand-yard stare, covered with a green-black coat of fuel oil. Some were almost dead, ribbons of flesh hung from their burnt flesh. They sought shelter in Charlottes “dungeon.”
Charlotte hadn’t known that skin could crisp up like bacon and that muscle could melt. Mothers tried to keep their children from looking– but it was too crowded, too close. The walking, stumbling, wounded men mingled with the already crowded families in the concrete room that served as their air raid shelter. Several of the new arrivals had died as they waited for the bullets and bombs to stop.
There was a lull so mothers and older children ran to their homes to retrieve blankets, sheets, anything to bandage the wounded. They hurried – fearing the Grim Reaper would be back with more bombs and bullets.
A man was standing next to Charlotte, shivering; he was naked. She took off her quilted blue bathrobe and gave it to him. He wrapped it around himself and said, “Thank you.”
~5:20 PM – HONOLULU – HONOLULU STAR-BULLETIN, 125 MARCHANT STREET Third Extra! Eight pages. “MARTIAL LAW DECLARED; DEATHS ARE MOUNTING”. Nineteen listed as dead including “Bob Tyce, operator of a flying service at John Rogers airport.” Another article spelled out what martial law meant: Lt. General Walter C. Short, commanding general of the Hawaiian department, issued the following statement at 3:45 p. m. today… The army demands the aid and assistance of every person.... If you are ordered by military personnel … that order must be obeyed instantly and without question. Avoid the slightest appearance of hostility either in words or acts. Civilians who go about their regular duties have nothing to fear… any infraction of military rules… will bring swift and harsh reprisals.
WHERE WAS BARBARA?
She a had gotten a phone call through late the evening, saying she was OK. She eventually made her way home after four days to an empty house. Her brother and dad were at work and wouldn’t return for hours.
She never said where she’d been or what she’d done, at least to her family. In the years that followed, each December 7, Barbara would simply say, “It’s Pearl Harbor Day.” Each year. the question came from her children, “What did you do? The answer varied from year to year. Then one year, her husband, Arthur Valarie Olsen, a Naval Aviator, blurted out, “picking up dead bodies out of the water.” If looks could kill, her husband would have died on the spot – “he’s just making up stories” she told her children.
But, if the lady does protest too much, it seems she had something in common with a little eight-year-old girl she didn’t even know who played innocently on Ford Island until, on December 7, she learned that human flesh could melt. Barbara is my mother — a woman who went through this and more with poise and grace.