How a 9-Year-Old Honolulu Girl Remembered Life After Pearl Harbor
A child’s view of the war.
Photos: Courtesy of Anna Derby Blackwell
Anna Derby Blackwell was a child living in Honolulu when all hell broke loose on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941. That morning marked the beginning of an extraordinary childhood war adventure for her—one that echoes the harrowing experiences of thousands of other youngsters living throughout the Territory of Hawai‘i at the time.
“I was 9 years old—the oldest of four children,” she recalls today. “We were living at 2495 Makiki Heights Road when it started. You would assume we had a heck of a view of what was happening—if, that is, we had been on the right side of the ridge. But we were on the Diamond Head side. So we could hear, and we could see fires in the city.”
The Sunday paper hadn’t come. When Father came down to breakfast, I was nearly pau, so he asked me to turn on the radio in the dining room (we usually had breakfast, supper and Sunday lunch on the lānai) to get the news. When I turned it on, Web Edwards was saying, “This is no drill. This is the real McCoy.”
“WHAT?” [Father] jumped out of his chair, the sleeves of his yukata kimono flapping, and came into the dining room. Mother joined us from the kitchen. Web Edwards said it again. And again.
“This is no drill. This is the real McCoy.”
“He said it over and over. I heard it! I was there! I heard it, and heard it, and heard it, and heard it.”
Mother phoned her mother, who was on Moloka‘i. “Yes, Mother, we’re all fine. There are lots of refugees in your house, but we’re managing!” Suddenly there was a terrific bang. “Oh, they’re bombing again,” said Mother. The censor cut her off immediately, and Grandma didn’t hear another word for two or three days. (The “bang!” may have been when the antiaircraft shell landed in the mom-and-pop store on the makai-‘Ewa corner of King and McCully. The proprietor lost his legs ...)
Across Makiki Valley from our house, the afternoon sun shone on the windshields of dozens of cars which had driven up Tantalus to get a view of Pearl Harbor from a safe distance. LIFE magazine printed a picture taken from there, and Father and the man next door are little white smears on the roof of his house, which was far enough over the ridge to give a view of sorts.
Monday morning Yasu, our yardman, appeared to express his embarrassment over the attack, and to make sure that we were all OK. He had walked all the way up from where he lived in Pauoa Valley. One pre-war year, Yasu had given me a wonderful display of Japanese dolls for Girls’ Day in March.
That first night of curfew we put a folded bath towel over the “eye” of the radio so that the light wouldn’t shine. Mother soon sewed denim blackout curtains for the dining room and, later, the living room. We used blackout flashlights and blackout light bulbs in the bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs.
We soon were issued gas masks—you couldn’t be farther away from your mask than you could hold your breath—and identification cards, which meant that we had to go down and be fingerprinted. School resumed after the first of the year, but Hanahau‘oli students were scattered across town, so that we wouldn’t all be in one place in the event of another attack. I was sent to Dr. Uyeno’s lānai.
Deputy air raid warden Dora Derby, then 34.
“The thing that is so wild, when you stop and think about all this, is my mother was 34 years old and my father was 36. And I have grandchildren who are older than that! And why didn’t Father get drafted? Well, it was because he was doing important work for the bank, he was a cop and had four kids.
Father was a reserve policeman (every Tuesday night and every sixth Sunday, his beat was from O‘ahu Prison to the Pearl Harbor gates): directing traffic, rounding up stray water buffaloes and, in Damon Tract, where the airport industrial area is now, removing meat cleavers from the hands of embattled housewives. I am not making this up. Mother was a deputy air raid warden ...
The playing field at the school was disrupted by zig-zag trenches (dug, I believe, by the students’ fathers) to prevent planes from attempting to land as well as serving as air-raid shelters.
Things loosened up considerably after the Battle of Midway in June of 1942 ... But we were still under martial law, which meant, for instance, that if someone was caught speeding, or on the streets after curfew, the provost marshal would fine him (or her) a pint of blood, to be donated at the Blood Bank.
There definitely was a war on. Beaches throughout the Islands were covered with rolls of barbed wire. Troops were quartered and trained all over the place ...
I was young enough that martial law didn’t matter to me. That was just the way things were. I mean, we were good kiddies and did what our parents told us in the end.
I was babysitting just below the bus stop the night of VJ Day, and could see right out to Pearl Harbor. It was just like the Fourth of July: rockets and all sorts of fireworks going off like mad.
Christmas 1945 and no more blackout. Downtown Honolulu was ablaze with Christmas lights. I remember Father driving very slowly down Fort Street and then up again so we could see the moving mannequins in the Liberty House windows.
Peace on earth—good will to all.
To find out about many activities linked to the historic anniversary, go online at pearlharbor75thanniversary.com.