For retired Major Harry “Bob” Kerr and Durward Swanson, who were both stationed at Hickam Field at Pearl Harbor with the Army Air Corps on Dec. 7, 1941, and survived the attack, that was a reality.
Kerr, 91, who lives in Atlanta and was a member of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, said telephones weren’t as affordable as they are today, and it cost 20 cents to send a postcard from Hawaii.
“We were only making $21 a month, so I didn’t have a whole lot of money to send a card,” he said. “I decided about a week later to buy a 3x5 card with the message, ‘Big Run boy okay in Hawaii.’ That made the local newspaper.”
The message was short and sweet, Kerr said, because all conversations were censored by the military.
“Even if you spoke on a telephone, someone listened,” he said.
Phone calls from Hawaii to the mainland cost $30 each, Kerr said. He recalled that just one or two men were able to call home.
Chaos reigned on the base for months after the attack, he said.
The attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters was a surprise military strike conducted by the Imperial Japanese Navy against the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
The base was attacked by 353 Japanese fighters, bombers and torpedo planes.
All eight U.S. Navy battleships in the harbor were damaged, with four being sunk. Nearly 190 U.S. aircraft were destroyed, 2,402 Americans killed and 1,282 wounded.
The attack led directly to the American entry into World War II.
Kerr spent more than 20 years in the service.
“I enjoyed every day of it,” he said. “I stayed in until 1963.”
However, Kerr didn’t speak much of Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field for nearly 50 years, until his son asked about his time there.
“That sort of sprung me, and I’ve been talking about it ever since,” he said. “There are a lot of people that just don’t like to talk about it, but I think it’s a story that needs to be told.”
Kerr has visited Cobb on numerous occasions. He spoke at the city’s Memorial Day service in the spring and recently spoke at Southern Polytechnic State University’s Veterans Day program in November.
Swanson, a native of LaGrange, was a 20-year-old technical sergeant when the Japanese attacked.
His mother didn’t hear from him until almost six months later when the military sent a telegraph reporting that he had been injured in another incident that followed the attack.
“My mama went to a fortune teller in Opelika, Ala., about two or three months after (the Pearl Harbor attack) and she said, ‘Your son’s all right but one of his legs or arms has been crippled,’” he said. “That’s what happened. I almost lost my left arm, leg and eye.”
Swanson, who now lives in Tennessee, said he was in the Army Air Corps a total of seven years, one month and four days.
“At the time of the bombing, it was almost three years,” he said. “I had just come off an all-night security duty and just had breakfast in the mess and went to lie down. (A soldier) came running in saying, ‘Sarge, Sarge, get up, the Japs are bombing the hell out of us!’”
Swanson said he peeked out the barracks window and saw a plane banking with a “Rising Sun” insignia on its wings. That’s when he knew it wasn’t a joke.
During that first night, he could see guns shooting everywhere.
One specific memory that haunts him at night is watching a friend die after being shot that morning.
“I see that when I go to sleep at night. I see James running across to get out of the way,” Swanson said. “I lost several good buddies that day.”
Swanson has also visited Cobb on many occasions, most recently being the keynote speaker at Pope High School’s Veterans Day celebration and last December he traveled with Pope and Walton high schools’ marching bands to Hawaii for the 70th anniversary of the attack.
Joe Meeler, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army and history professor at Kennesaw State University, has studied both World Wars at length and said it certainly wasn’t unheard of that messages to family and friends took as long as they did.
“Telephone lines were limited coming into the island. … It was primitive communications compared to now,” he said.
“The number one thing on the mind of everybody on the island, especially the commanding officers, was when is the Japanese Army invading? … The whole island went on a state of alert. Every soldier was on the beach with machine guns,” Meeler said.
Fortunately, the feared invasion never came.
Many families back home assumed that because their soldier or seaman was on a specific ship they died that day, though some were in fact able to swim to shore.
“The Navy especially wasn’t interested in letting family know who was alive,” he said. “It was an issue of national security.”
This state of alert went on for weeks.
“It was as state of absolute terror out there, and they were wanting to be able to defend the islands from an attack that may or may not come again from the Japanese,” he said. “We were worried about letters going home being intercepted. They were trying to make sure the Japanese knew nothing more than they already did. How many of us were dead, the number of ships down.”
To mark the 71st anniversary today, members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2681 in Marietta are hosting a Pearl Harbor memorial service. It will be held from 11 to 11:30 a.m. at the post, 140 Powers Ferry Road, followed by lunch.
For more information, call (770) 977-2088.