Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor

By Jack Estes

Pearl Harbor 2

The sky was blue that summer day in June, as Claire Hurly stepped off the Portland Trolley in front of Meier Franks, crossed underneath the green awning and pushed through the double doors. The store was packed. The Rose Festival ships were in town tied along the Willamette riverbanks and the city was buzzing with promise and excitement. This was exhilarating for a girl who grew up on a small dairy farm in Salem. Blond and blued eyed with full lips, Claire had a Grace Kelly kind of beauty. She lived in the city then and worked as a sales clerk. It was 1941, she was 22, and in love.

Much of the world was at war in 1940. Germany with Europe and Japan with China and French Indochina. The United States was staying out, but worried about this aggression. In May that same year, main elements of the US Navy were strategically transferred from San Diego to the Hawaiian Island of Oahu and Pearl Harbor. Its Navy yard had a dry dock capable of holding the largest warships. It’s massive docking, was called Battleship Row. In or near the harbor were a submarine base, hospital, Hickam and Wheeler airfields, the Schofield barracks and bases at Ford Island. This made Pearl Harbor a formidable target. Tensions were high as President Franklin Roosevelt tried to negotiate with Japan and avoid the US being sucked into war.   

Pat O’Callaghan was tall, broad shouldered and a handsome man. He boxed out of the Multnomah Athletic Club and in 1936 won the Oregon Golden Gloves Heavyweight Championship. His smile rang as true and as honest as his powerful punch or firm handshake.  He attended Oregon State College, left school early and joined the Army Corps of Engineers, specializing in constructing airfields and fortifications.

Pat met Claire for the first time in February of 41, on the dance floor at the Thai Ping Terrace on Barbur Blvd. Both knew immediately something huge was stirring. The next day he left a dozen red roses on her doorstep. But by the end of March Pat was in Hawaii assigned to work at Pearl Harbor.

Even though they had seen each other fewer than a dozen times Pat wrote Claire in a letter home “If you come to Hawaii I’ll ask you to marry me.”  So, Claire’s heart was bursting that summer day at Meier and Franks, reading his note again and again, at lunch and on the trolley going home. Soon Pat sent her a steamship ticket for Hawaii. By the end of July Claire, against her mother’s wishes, was on a train to San Francisco, where she boarded ship and left port, steaming across the Pacific.

Pat stood on the dock, tanned in a white linen suit, wearing a pink, Plumeria lei. When Claire reached him, he placed the lei over her head, bent down on one knee and asked her to marry him. They were married on August 2, 1941 in a small white church surrounded by palm and mango trees, that looked down on Pearl Harbor. They settled into a modest home at Hickam AirField, in direct line with Battleship Row.   

September melted into October as Claire worked at the library or volunteered at the hospital. Pat spent long days near Hickam, lying tarmac, building bunkers and repairing roads. On weekends they stretched out on the beach or explored the island, climbing through trails in the jungle. At night they would meet young Army or Naval officers and their wives, listen to music and play cards on their front porch. Often, they discussed that war was looming.

On November 26 the Japanese attack fleet left its northern borders with six aircraft carriers, over 400 fighter planes, 33 war ships, and submarines carrying on piggyback five, two-man midget submarines. They were headed toward Pearl Harbor. On December 1st Japanese Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo received orders to attack the harbor on December 7th. They moved their ships closer to the island and settled in 200 miles from shore. On the night of December 6th the midget subs were released, hoping to hide on the harbor floor.

That same evening, Pat and Claire O’Callaghan threw a party at their house. Friends came to eat and drink, a few were officers and sailors from the battleship Arizona. They partied into the night and some folks wandered home but a few sailors slept on couches, or the floor as ships lay quietly in the harbor.

Early in the morning on December 7th Pat awoke to the sounds of airplane engines grinding. He sat up, turned to Claire and said, “Those aren’t our planes.” The first wave of Japanese dive bombers hit Pearl Harbor at 7:53am. Enemy fighters with red suns on their wings flew so close to the ground, Pat and Claire could see the pilot’s faces. Hundreds of dive-bombers strafed the ships, machine guns ripping, bombs and torpedoes dropping. The sailors that stayed that night rushed desperately toward the harbor. The Arizona was one of the first ships hit. A 1700-pound bomb struck its forward magazines, exploding into 200-foot high balls of flames and pillars of black smoke. Claire felt the concussion in her feet and Pat said, “Now we’re in hell.” 1100 men were killed instantly. 300 survivors, some of them on fire, dove from the ship into the oil-burning harbor. They could see Battleship Row being hit again and again as sailors and Marines fought back from their flaming ships, with anti-aircraft guns and machine guns firing. The USS Oklahoma was hit by torpedoes, capsized and 400 men died, trapped inside. At Hickam Field a direct hit on the mess hall killed 35 eating breakfast and more bombs destroyed sitting planes there and at Wheeler. 183 planes were destroyed and only five US planes made it off the ground. 12 battleships were sunk or damaged. In two hours over 2400 Military and civilians were killed and 1200 wounded. The last enemy planes pulled away and disappeared over Diamond Head and the aerial attack was over.

The island was in full panic expecting an invasion. Dead and wounded lay on walkways, in fields and floated on the water. Cars, trucks and rescue vehicles jammed at every corner. Pat and Claire moved toward the hills but were stopped at a roadblock. A shaken Colonel talked to Pat then immediately commissioned him as a 2nd Lieutenant. He handed him a 22 Colt pistol and that night Pat was sent out with thirty native Hawaiians to forge a perimeter, dig fighting trenches and build bunkers. Claire was back at the hospital terrified, tending to the wounded.

On December 8th the United States and Britain declared war on Japan. Pat and Claire stayed on in Hawaii. Their first child Lani, was born in October of 42. In December Pat was assigned to Camp Butler, North Carolina for training and Claire was shipped back to the mainland. She lived in a wartime housing project, called Kellogg Park in Milwaukie, Oregon.

Pat was attached to the 389th Engineer Regiment and volunteered to lead a platoon of all black soldiers. These good men came from the poorest farmlands. Many were illiterate and had never worn shoes. But they were gravely needed. There were about 70 white officers and 1300 black troops. Pat’s Regiment traveled by train to New York in December of 1943 and shipped out to England. For the rest of the war Pat build bridges and roads and his regiment was attacked by German planes, Buzz bombs and V-2 rockets.

When the war ended Pat came home and became a successful contractor but never talked much about the war. Claire meanwhile, did quite well in real estate investment. They had five more children. Michael, Colleen, Molly, Patrick and Peggy. They were married for over fifty years living most of their life in Tualatin. When my father-in-law Pat died, Claire spread his ashes over a peaceful bay in Hawaii, along with pink petals of Plumaria. Year’s later Claire’s ashes followed.            

Jack Estes is a writer and lives in West Linn, Oregon

He served in Vietnam with the Marines in 68/69

He can be reached at jackestes@comcast.net

Semper Fi

 

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