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Dec. 7, 1941: The day these children learned the meaning of war

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image SHIRLEY (GIBBENS) ENGLE 17 years old, was on Waikiki Beach directing a busload of football players to the University.

For them, and the other children who witnessed the event first-hand, life would never be quite the same.


SUN CITY CENTER — Seven-year-old Arnold Larson thought he was watching a fireworks show until his dad handed him a .22 caliber rifle and instructed him to “shoot to kill.”

Just four days past his sixth birthday, Ed Beck awoke to frantic conversation between his parents, jumped from his bed and stared out his window at the low-flying planes with the red “meatball” on the sides.

Meanwhile, down on Waikiki Beach, seventeen-year-old Shirley Gibbens (Engle) had just met two football teams that had arrived to play at the University of Hawaii. It was supposed to be her job to meet the buses and escort the players back to the school.

It was approximately 8 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941. The day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt later said was a “day which would live in infamy.”

The U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor had just been bombed.

The three “child survivors” of Pearl Harbor that were interviewed for this story all have different recollections of that day and the months that followed. Their memories come from different places, due to their age and circumstances surrounding the event.

“My father was career military. He had just gotten commissioned as an Ensign and we were outside in a recreation area that had a baseball field,” Arnold Larson said. “The enlisted people had their Christmas party on the 6th, and the officers were supposed to have theirs there on the 7th. Some of the grownups were taking guns to the shooting range and when the planes came by, my father handed me a .22 rifle and my mother a .45 pistol. He told me to stay with my mother and shoot to kill.”

When the first bomb hit, Arnold’s first thought was that he was watching a fireworks show. The big boom, the tremendous splash of bright light.

“It took me a minute to realize the adults were scared,” he said. “My father was a gunner’s mate and I had already learned to shoot a weapon. In fact, the Saturday before, I had just shot a Thompson machine gun.”

The day Arnold was interviewed for this story, he commented that it was “serendipity.” 

“I just sat down and was reading a letter from my father about combat action that was written on Dec. 6, 1942,” he said. “I can’t believe I got this call right now.”

Ed Beck remembers being unable to comprehend the unfolding tragedy despite his mother’s words.

“She held me up to the window so I could see the smoke and flames rising,” he said. “I thought it was some sort of super Fourth of July.”

Like Arnold, Ed thought only of fireworks. It took the child’s mind a while to wrap around the thought of fear.

He recalls fighter planes being low overhead.

“They were so close you could easily see the men’s faces, with goggles pushed up over their eyes,” he said.

Ed’s father was the Lt. Commander of the USS Phelps at the time. He later became a Rear Admiral. Ed thought it was funny to see him in dress uniform on what should have been a relaxing Sunday morning.

“He gave us one quick hug and he was gone,” he said. But unlike many others — his father did come back.

During the weeks that followed, Ed remembers the demands to keep absolute silence, the air raid warnings and gas mask training.

Finally the families were evacuated to California by ship.

“They had to wait what seemed to be a long time and now I know it was because the government thought the enemy might torpedo the ship,” he said.

Once back in the States, Ed saw the adults donating junk cars and other metal items. He now knows it was to make weapons.

“My mother was touched when I donated my bike,” he said. “I had just gone from a trike to a regular bicycle. It wasn’t any big thing. But she said it was the principle behind it.”

Shirley Engle, then Shirley Gibbens, was 17 at the time of the Pearl Harbor bombing. Her father was in the Civil Service working at the Naval base.

“I grew up in Hawaii and had just started at the University. I was the youngest and the littlest, so I got the job of meeting two football teams that were coming in to play at the university. I got on the bus going to the beach, and a man said ‘I think we’ll be in a war by Christmas.’ At the time, I thought, that can’t happen! I have dates through New Year’s. Normal thoughts for a teenage girl.”

But what followed the bus ride to Waikiki Beach was anything but normal.

“I got to the beach before the second wave of bombing. The football teams got off the buses and I was with them. There was much activity, shells flying around, and we knew something drastic was going on.”

Military personnel started putting barbed wire around the beach. They expected the enemy to land and the Red Cross came and told us to be ready to help them prepare beds for the wounded,” she said. “It was horrific, seeing all the gorgeous ships in tatters. My father’s job was to estimate damage. He estimated damage for a long time after that.”

Shirley recalls living in complete blackout for a long time after the bombing. Everybody covered their windows tight with wood. There couldn’t be a speck of light anywhere after dark. If there was, they could become a target.

All three remembered learning the meaning of fear. None of them had ever seen their parents frightened before. In the months to come, the families lived through blackouts, rationing and wreckage.

For them, and the other children who witnessed the event first-hand, life would never be quite the same.

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