Remember Pearl Harbor: The Day of Infamy That Changed Honolulu Forever
On the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, we commemorate the event with some of the untold stories of that day from survivors—both civilian and military.
An hour or so after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor began at 7:55 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, residents living on the lower slopes of O‘ahu’s ‘Ālewa Heights heard an eerie reverberation screaming down from the sky.
It was “a terrible, deafening, whirring sound, like metal scraping against metal,” remembers Elsie Faufata, 86, who was there as a child of 11, and, 75 years later, has never forgotten.
Her home, in which she and her mother were standing that morning, was 150 feet from the point of impact. Fragments from the blast tore through the house, one shard slicing a wedge through a section of wall near where Elsie had been resting a short time earlier. The family had just moved into the house the month before.
Mary Frances Hluboky, who was 10 at the time and still lives at 643 Judd St., a block down from the blast site, recalls it as a “whining noise” that “just sounded like, Weeee-oooooo!!—with an increasing intensity. And then this huge explosion! My parents, sisters, and relatives and I, we were all lying on the floor. I heard a car—and I’m telling you it was speeding up the hill. And when that thing came down, and then exploded, I knew in my heart the people inside that car got killed. It was just a tremendous sound.”
Within a heartbeat of that shock wave, five lives would be ended at the intersection of Judd and Iholena streets. Four of the victims were riggers en route to Pearl Harbor’s Shop 72, where they worked. The car in which they were traveling—a dark green, 1937 Packard 120 sedan—took a direct hit from the blast, landing at 802 Judd St. with four flattened tires. What remained was a blackened, smoldering vehicle framework with a yawning hole in its roof and the rest pocked by dozens of gaping shrapnel perforations that had passed through the vehicle and its occupants.
Levi Faufata Jr., 89, of Pacific Heights—Elsie’s Faufata’s older brother—may be the only person still living who witnessed the explosion that mutilated the Packard and sent it hurtling diagonally across the intersection, slamming it violently to the opposite side of the street. Elsie, who was in the house and didn’t see the explosion, later refused to look at the car.
“I heard the bomb fall and explode in our intersection,” said Elsie, who now lives with her daughter in Kāhala, and, like her brother, has difficulty discussing the events of that morning.
Levi, 14 at the time, had been in his yard on Iholena Street and felt the concussion from the blast and heard a cry. Along with two cousins who were living with the family, he rushed to the vehicle to render aid to the men inside.
“But three of the men were already dead,” he says. “And the fourth was mortally wounded.”
David Kahookele, 23, seated on the passenger’s side of the front seat of the Packard, was taken from the vehicle alive, but never made it to the hospital. Seated behind Kahookele was his uncle, Joseph McCabe Sr., 43. Beside McCabe in the back seat was Joseph Adams, 50, McCabe’s first cousin, who owned the Packard. The driver was John Adams, Joseph Adams’ 18-year-old son.
All four men had attended 7 a.m. mass that morning along with family members at St. Ann’s Parish in Kāne‘ohe, near where the Adams and McCabe families resided. Like hundreds of others that morning—including Levi Faufata Sr., who was a pipe fitter at Pearl Harbor’s Shop 52—the four riggers were heeding urgent radio advisories to report to their Pearl Harbor work stations at once.
In an instant, young Levi realized the cry hadn’t come from the car. It had come from his sister, Matilda Faufata. He rushed back to the house and up the outside staircase.
The fifth victim that morning was a lively 12-year-old who played the accordion and often participated in dance recitals at the Pālama Settlement. Moments earlier, along with a gaggle of siblings and cousins, she had been standing on the outside steps watching Japanese dive bombers whiz over the rooftop of the family’s new home at 2009 Iholena St. At first the youngsters imagined the morning’s aerial excitement was part of an elaborate, spectacular military drill.
But by 9 o’clock they realized they were watching history—Pearl Harbor under an actual and extraordinary enemy attack. Then came that frightful whining, the ground-quaking explosion, and a fatal shrapnel fragment that struck Matilda—Levi’s younger, and Elsie’s older, sister—directly in the heart.
“Matilda was at the top of the stairs,” explains Elsie. “‘Uncle’—actually my second cousin, Joseph Kekahuna—was standing behind her. When Matilda fell back into his arms, he didn’t know what was wrong. I remember him carrying her inside and laying her down. We heard her last breaths. She had just enough time to say ‘Mama.’”
“She died cradled in our mother’s arms,” adds Levi.
What happened at Judd and Iholena that day was by no means an isolated incident. All over O‘ahu—from downtown Honolulu to Hickam Field, Waipahu to Wahiawā—similar fatal civilian incidents would occur and other lives, like Elsie’s and Levi’s, would be altered forever after. Even before the Judd Street incident, several people were killed when a bomb blew up a saimin stand at Nu‘uanu and Kukui. A half hour after the Judd Street explosion, fragments from a similar projectile blast by the office of the governor killed a nearby pedestrian.
Historic researcher and writer Nanette Napoleon has documented 57 explosion sites in which the lives of dozens of children, women and men—ranging in age from 7 months to 67 years—came to a tragic end throughout the day. The total number of civilian deaths came to 54, Napoleon says.
–Elsie Faufata Miraflor
But, of the civilian incidents, only the explosion at Judd and Iholena streets comes complete with its own iconic image: a picture of the ’37 Packard snapped shortly after the whining explosion and soon disseminated far and wide. Since then the photo has been perennially republished during anniversary accounts of the events that ushered the United States into World War II.
According to Hawai‘i historian DeSoto Brown, longtime collections manager at the Bishop Museum archives, the Packard photo was taken by the late civil engineer, architect and noted Hawai‘i photographer Robert Wenkam, who, at age 21, had arrived in Honolulu early in 1941 and had taken up residency in an apartment on Judd Street.
In Wenkam’s 1978 book, Honolulu Is an Island, the author details hiking in the brush of lower ‘Ālewa Heights on the morning of Dec. 7, where he not only witnessed, but photographed, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At one point, he was standing just below the intersection of Judd and Iholena when he heard the telltale screeching from high above that Mary Frances Hluboky and Elsie and Levi Faufata did.
Wenkam writes that he dropped flat on the ground “as the whistling grew uncomfortably loud, heading directly toward me.” There followed the explosion that sent shards of shrapnel whizzing in all directions, some passing “inches above my ears,” he writes.
When it seemed safe to stand, Wenkam was startled to notice, in the street directly above him, “a Packard sedan had stopped, its engine still running, a strange hum in an eerie silence.” He walked toward the fuming vehicle punctured by jagged black holes. Inside he was horrified by the bloodied bodies of men either dead or hopelessly wounded. “There was no way I could help them,” he writes. He snapped the shutter on his Kodak Retina camera, turned, and headed down the hill in such shock he was struck dumb for hours. “I could only open my mouth,” he says. “I could not utter a sound.”
On Monday, Wenkam took his film to a photo shop to be developed. On Tuesday, U.S. Navy Intelligence officials confiscated Wenkam’s film. Soon, to his surprise, his photographs turned up in a major national publication. “I saw my photographs spread across four pages, with captions telling of the death and destruction by the Japanese bombing of Honolulu. They were not my captions, but they were my first published photographs.”
Official Navy records say the entire attack on Pearl Harbor “lasted less than two hours.” Thus, by shortly after 10 a.m., the last Japanese warplane had departed.
And yet, incredibly, the war seemed to rage on unabated. Throughout the morning, bombs continued to fall and ambulances raced to save victims; throughout the afternoon, fire engines wailed as bombardment blazes burned out of control. Talk quickly spread of saboteurs parachuting onto the island and local water systems being poisoned. By afternoon, martial law had been instituted across the entire territory.
Soon after the sun went down, reports circulated from police broadcasts that “Pearl Harbor is being bombed again!” Frantic radio alerts directed residents to “turn out your lights and do not turn them on for any purpose whatsoever.” The night skies were fraught with peril. Planes from the U.S. aircraft carrier Enterprise attempting to land on Ford Island were shot down and pilots killed—presumably by returning enemy Japanese warplanes.
Except the enemy hadn’t returned at all. Napoleon’s research shows that the nine civilians actually killed by Japanese dive bombers were either inside or near military zones. A military munitions specialist who studied all O‘ahu civilian blast sites from that Sunday concluded a solitary Japanese bomb might have accidentally been dropped on Honolulu during the attack. The rest of the civilian site blasts—including the one that killed Matilda Faufata and the Judd Street Packard occupants—were the work of ill-fused and errant U.S. Navy 5-inch antiaircraft shells and panicky, itchy-fingered sailors.
History has since definitively concluded the Japanese aim was the destruction of O‘ahu military targets as quickly as possible—there was no time, need or purpose for targeting civilians. Likewise, there was no fifth-column activity in Hawai‘i before, during or after Dec. 7, 1941; enemy paratroopers never landed on O‘ahu; saboteurs never poisoned local water supplies; local magazine ads never included hidden messages alerting conspirators when the attack would begin; secret agents never taught specialized Island dogs to bark in code.
Some aspects of that Sunday remain unresolved. What became of the burned-out ’37 Packard, for instance? Hluboky distinctly remembers the emptied vehicle being parked at locations on both sides of Judd Street—one directly across from her house. Photos of the car, other than the famous shot, show it sitting among junked cars at a location in the 300 block of Queen Street, directly behind the downtown Honolulu Post Office.
Honolulu history instructor and old car expert Fred Weisberger says most likely the thing was simply scrapped. It was not a high-end Packard, and it was so damaged it would have been cost prohibitive to repair, he says.
“Plus, who would have the time? There was a war going on.”
More than anything else, it was the unshakable belief that Japanese bombers would soon be returning that became the overriding, and nearly paralyzing, apprehension that gripped the Islands and drove circumstances from Dec. 7 forward. It was the reason Hawai‘i’s military government “imposed upon the Islands the most complete censorship ever practiced in the United States,” as author Helen Geracimos Chapin writes in her book, Shaping History.
–Mary Frances Hluboky
It was why thousands of Island children, including Mary Frances Hluboky and Elsie Faufata, were registered, fingerprinted, duty bound to wear ID badges at all times, never to be caught out of doors without a gas mask, required to regularly participate in air raid drills and anything else the military authorities could think of to mandate.
It was why the Bill of Rights and all civil liberties were suspended in the Islands, and why people suspected of crimes were tried without representation or hope of appeal by military tribunals lasting five minutes or less—22,000 tribunals in 1942 and 1943, in which 99 percent of the defendants were found guilty, according to the late Jon Van Dyke, professor of law at the University of Hawai‘i School of Law. Those deemed violators were subject to fines, imprisonment and death.
“I remember a perpetual sense of dread,” says Hluboky.
Following the war, the U.S. Supreme Court found that Hawai‘i’s martial law and tribunal system had been unconstitutional. Writing the main opinion for the court, Justice Hugo Black stated that, “Civilians in Hawai‘i are entitled to a fair trial to the same extent as those who live in any other part of the country.”
Justice Frank Murphy wrote a separate concurring opinion that strongly disagreed with the military’s argument that, because “one-third of the civilian population being of Japanese descent,” jury trials in the Islands would be inappropriate because of Hawai‘i’s “heterogeneous population with all sort of affinities and loyalties which are alien in many cases to the philosophy of life of the American Government …”
Murphy’s response was unequivocal: “Racism has no place whatsoever in our civilization. The Constitution as well as the conscience of mankind disclaims its use for any purpose, military or otherwise.”
Today Elsie Faufata Miraflor finds that decision heartening.
After the war, her brother Levi joined the military and was stationed in Japan. There, he met and fell in love with a young Japanese woman named Yoko. When the couple settled in Hawai‘i, Yoko Faufata worried that her husband’s family would resent her, thinking that it was her people who had been responsible for Matilda’s death.
“But, of course, by then we knew an American antiaircraft shell had killed Matilda,” she says. “Yoko and Levi were married for 65 years before she died in 2014. And, of course, we all loved her.”