When Paradise Died
desires to live in paradise. We all have
our own version of what paradise is, however.
For some, it may be snow-covered mountains, for others, serene farmland,
and for still others, a bustling, vibrant city neighborhood. Many of us consider paradise to be a tropical
setting, with white sand beaches, palms swaying in the wind, and warm
temperatures throughout the year.
In the United States, this last description of paradise most accurately fits the Hawaiian Islands. Notorious for stunning landscapes, rich foliage, and alluring beaches, Hawaii beckons many visitors with its beauty. Though most of those visitors never make the permanent move to live in the islands, many certainly entertain the thought of making this island paradise their home.
Even before Hawaii became the destination it is today, many people found the islands to be their personal paradise. Living, and working there, offered an opportunity to take advantage of some of the most pleasurable conditions one could imagine. That is, until one Sunday morning 75 years ago.
The Sunday morning of December 7, 1941, began like so many others in that paradise – quiet, serene, sunny, with those already awake planning breakfast or church service, while others still lounged in bed. At around 8am, with the drone of the engines from the Japanese planes, the explosions of machine gun fire, and the concussions of the bombs and torpedoes, that all changed. Paradise became hell for those that watched, and experienced the onslaught of death and destruction.
Much has been written about the attacks on the naval base at Pearl Harbor, and the air base, Hickam Field. Many who read history know of the quick sinking of the Arizona, with its massive loss of life; the destruction of the USS West Virginia, and how the USS Oklahoma rolled over after being hit, trapping hundreds of sailors and marines underneath. We haven’t heard as much about the civilian population that lived and worked near the base, and the toll the attack took on those who lived, and earned their livings in paradise.
Bombs meant for military targets – ships, planes, soldiers and sailors – also hit homes, shops and businesses in neighborhoods in Oahu. Buildings destroyed, fires burned out of control, civilians injured and killed. Hospitals were overrun with dead and wounded children and adults, all bearing the horrible scars of war, as did the naval personnel at Pearl and the airmen at Hickam. Roads were destroyed, power cut, and fear spread through the city.
Honolulu Star-Bulletin reporter Elizabeth McIntosh gave an apt description of the civilian carnage in her first-person account of the attack. “In the morgue, the bodies were laid on slabs in the grotesque positions in which they had died. Fear contorted their faces. Their clothes were blue-black from incendiary bombs. One little girl in a red sweater, barefoot, still clutched a piece of jump-rope in her hand.”
McIntosh went on to say how she now knew the fear felt by the people of London, during the bombings conducted by the Germans, but I wonder if what was experienced by the civilians during the Pearl Harbor attack was, if possible, even worse. During the London bombings, the next attack was always expected. The attack on Pearl was, at least for the civilians, and most of the service personnel, totally unexpected, with no state of war existing between Japan and the US on that day.
The aftermath of the attack proved harrowing as well. There were blackouts and power outages, sirens repeatedly going off, random firing of weapons from the bases, and constant rumors of Japanese military personnel on Oahu, ready to attack.
Official reports say that 68 civilians lost their lives during the attack on Pearl Harbor, with many injured. The deaths included civilian pilots, who happened to be in the air at the worst possible time. This compares with roughly 2,400 US service members killed. For those survivors of the attack, both civilian and military, the horrible loss of life, and the wanton destruction, was accompanied by the shattering of the image of living in a true paradise.