Stories of Pearl
In Hawaii, we need only to say one word, Pearl, and it brings instant recognition. The response often begins with, “My grandpa told me….” or dad, uncle, neighbor, teacher, even the family dentist. What the stories have in common is the fact that on December 7th, 1941 each storyteller’s world changed forever.
Auntie Tootie’s Story
Auntie Tootie lived on the mountains above Pearl Harbor, way up in the heights of Aiea in a smallish house with her husband and four kids. She was cousin to my neighbors in Papakolea. When she came for dinner the honor of the blessing was hers, and she always ended it by thanking God for “peace on this island.” Whenever we asked about that, she retold the story of her husband working the night shift at Pearl, usually getting home about 8 a.m.:
“It was Sunday morning, time for good clothes. We waiting for dad get home, eat something, all of us pile in ‘da’ car for church. Then, the noise. I looked. I thought our mountain was erupting like one volcano. I ran outside. Big, big smoke! I grab the kids and push them under the house. He never came home until long time. We were so scared. We thought the planes were coming back. We never went back outside for days. I would crawl out after dark to get water and blankets and some food. We had Japanese neighbors. They brought food. We all stayed together until they got taken away to housing where they could still work but were under curfew. With the bad feelings about Japan’s attack on Pearl, lots of people ask me why they kept a job. Those guys was Essential Workers cause of so many dead and everyone in the Navy shipping out!”
Dr. Bob Gibson’s Story
In the months after the attack, Dr. Bob Gibson, later known as Honolulu’s Smile Doctor, was an eleven-year-old boy scout, one of many who spent hours sitting on hilltops watching for planes. In his Ala Moana dental office was a large piece of metal, painted black with a red circle. He found that chunk of a Japanese Zero when he was on the top of the hill in Aiea Heights, not far from the home of Auntie Tootie.
Bob Hampton’s Story
Local business leader today, Bob Hampton was born in 1937. As an adult he was the creator of the famed Territorial Tavern where contemporary Hawaiian music was born. As a kid his memories, and those of his brother, Ed, are still that of a small boy living right at Pearl Harbor. Their father, Robert Hampton, “Chief Hampton,” was the chief boiler-maker on a ship called the Shaw. Like my own dad and my grandpa, Bill Cook, Bob’s dad was educated on the job.
Bob’s earliest memories are, as he describes them, all mixed up with other people’s stories. His dad brought guys, military and civilian, officers and enlisted men, over to the house/Quonset hut where they lived. He says, “When we started Pearl Harbor Elementary School we wore denim to look as much like the sailors as possible. They were our heroes.” His dad’s pals all told stories and, as often happens, the stories all blended together like a really good stew. “Good or bad, our dad would always tell us what he could of what he knew,” Bob says, “Working at Pearl was the original ‘coconut wireless.’”
Bob Hampton remembers how all the windows of the houses and Quonset were painted black. As kids they would sneak around and peel off a corner so they could see out. Sometimes they would see an eyeball looking back. “One morning, early, my mom saw an eyeball looking in. Dad was out on the ship, so she opened the door and hit the peeping tom until he ran off!”
Bill Cook’s Story
William F. Cook was a civilian worker from Washington State. He ran the big crane at Pearl Harbor Shipyard. His name is on a gravestone at Punchbowl National Cemetery of the Pacific. I visit him often. What we know about him is a passed-down story. His wife, Grandma Nora Cook was sent back to the mainland, to Bremerton, Washington. Her son, Joe Cook, worked in the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard where they built and repaired ships and sent them back for battle.
Like many wives, Nora received the “We regret to inform you…” letter with no details.
One day a young sailor, working side by side with Joe, looked at his nametag and said, “I worked with a guy named Bill Cook at Pearl. He was pulling a big chunk of a ship up to open the harbor and his whole rig got pulled under.”
Joe asked the sailor if he would like to come to his mom’s for dinner that very night. Of course that must have sounded better than the mess hall, but the sailor had to ask, “Why tonight?”
Joe’s answer was quick, “I want you to tell my mom the story you just told me. She never knew how my dad died.”
As we come to the 75th anniversary of a war that changed history forever, the re-telling of stories makes it real but no less painful. It helps to read some of the great books, written by many local authors. Even better is asking “uncle” or “auntie” to tell you what their life was like, here or Japan or on the mainland continent.
Don’t wait for December 7th when the memorials will be filled with the last of the WWII heroes, the President of the United States and throngs of other dignitaries. Stand and be thankful for freedom. Honor bravery every day and any day. Take a day or more, visit what is now a 17-acre monument that includes the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum, the Pacific Aviation Museum, and the Battleship Missouri Memorial where the papers of surrender were signed by the Japanese. For many years the Missouri was moored next to the shipyard in Bremerton where high-school students told the story. But all agree, she is now where she belongs, just across the water from the Arizona Memorial, the first and last, the bookends of the war.
Take as many hours as you can to tour what we still all call the Arizona Memorial. It is now filled with local stories, tales of what comes from your grandparents’ memories. Take a suggestion and take Kleenex.
And, when you drive up to Punchbowl, please stop by row 1200 to say Aloha to Bill Cook. His grave is toward the left, beyond the graves of famous war correspondent Ernie Pyle and our own astronaut, Ellison Onizuka. Always remember.
Visit the special Pearl Harbor section at www.hawaii.com/pearl-harbor.
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