A Pearl Harbor Survivor

By Henry S. Parker


Early in the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when the first bombs began to drop, my mother was making cornbread in my parents’ beachfront cottage in Oahu, Hawaii. She didn’t hear the explosions because their house was some distance from the action, but she was annoyed to find that the cornbread wasn’t cooking because the power had gone off. My father would soon be back from his early morning swim, and she had wanted to surprise him. Oh well, she thought. Power outages were a small price to pay for an idyllic existence in a tropical island paradise.

Ruth Parker (“Woofie” to her friends) had arrived in Hawaii just six weeks earlier. My father, Navy Lt. j.g. Harry Parker, had preceded her to take command of a PT boat based in Pearl Harbor. They were virtually newlyweds, married only 16 months. Woofie, 21, and eight years younger than my father, felt fortunate to be able to accompany Harry on peacetime overseas duty. And to a young couple in late 1941, Hawaii was a romantic luau of balmy tropical nights, sparkling beaches, bright flowers and lilting ukulele music.

As Woofie pondered cold-breakfast alternatives, the phone rang. “Have you heard?” her friend, Betty Preston, asked. The island is under attack. Betty’s husband, Murray, was Harry’s executive officer and the two couples had become fast friends. Then two neighbor boys arrived on bicycles and breathlessly reported that an airfield was being bombed. It was awful, they said.

Soon after, Harry arrived, back from his swim. He too had heard about air raids. He knew he should immediately report to his boat. He dressed in his uniform, jumped into the car with Woofie, and sped to the Prestons’ house. Leaving my mother with Betty, my father and Murray headed toward Pearl Harbor in Murray’s car. Another naval officer, Waldo Drake, joined them. My mother was not sure when she would see her husband again.

As the men raced down the road, a formation of planes flew low over them, close enough that my father could see rising sun insignia on the wings and oriental faces in the cockpits. Japanese planes, Harry exclaimed. No way, Drake argued. This is just a drill. As a staff officer for the commander in chief, Pacific, Drake had heard of plans to conduct a war exercise. The “meatball” emblems were merely a realistic touch, he added.

Farther along, the men saw flames in the vicinity of the Army Air Corps base at Wheeler Field. They pulled over and climbed up a small hill that gave them a view of the field. Hangars and planes were blazing. Again Drake insisted it was all part of an exercise. The “fires” were simply smoke pots to add realism, he said.

Soon Pearl Harbor came into view. The officers could see ships listing and sinking. Then a destroyer, the USS Shaw, blew up in front of their eyes. This was no drill.

My father and a skeleton crew boarded his boat, PT 22, and roared out of the harbor with orders to engage the enemy. They were joined by 28 other PTs in three squadrons. The 77-foot, wooden boats were unarmored and lightly armed (with two pairs of 50-caliber machine guns) but drew first blood against the Japanese invaders, shooting down two torpedo bombers while the attack was still in progress. My father’s boat was in the thick of it, expending 500 rounds of 50-caliber ammunition and, with PT-21, bringing down a Japanese Zero. My father and his crew emerged unscathed from the attack. Their only casualty was a shrapnel hole in the main deck.  

It was more than a day before my father could contact my mother. In the weeks and months after the attack my father fought at Midway and other distant locales. In late December 1941 his boat sank an enemy submarine. My mother remained in Hawaii, but moved with her friend Betty closer to Honolulu. Fearing a follow-up Japanese invasion, she bought the only “weapon” available—a toy pistol. She resolved to aid the war effort herself, first rolling bandages for wounded soldiers and sailors, then serving with distinction in the Army’s Office of Censorship and the Women’s Air Raid Defense. She worked two grueling back-to-back, seven-hour shifts. My father would periodically return to Hawaii. Finally, on March 30, 1943, he received orders to report to Melville, Rhode Island.

My father died in 1985. My mother, now 91, vividly remembers her first-hand experience of the Pearl Harbor attack. She does not think that she was especially courageous, but anyone who knows her—and her story—knows better. 

This account is based on information from discussions with my mother, her brimming scrapbooks, the log book from PT-22, PT boat action reports, online resources and an excellent article by Tiffany Strong published in Village Soup of the Waldo County, Maine Herald Gazette, Aug. 15, 2009.

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