Richard G. Schimmel grew up in Allentown, joined the Army in 1940 and was assigned to the Aircraft Warning Service on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. He worked as a plotter and switchboard operator at an information center at Fort Shafter, just east of Pearl Harbor. The center took calls from Oahu's mobile radar stations. Today, the 85-year-old west Allentown resident remembers what happened Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941.
I got off duty at 6 o'clock at night on the 6th. We could sneak out and go out to town -- we were right at the edge of Honolulu. But I don't think I went out that night, for some reason.
Joe McDonald relieved me, and usually when we had the night shift, we could doze off because there was nothing doing. There was no reason why anybody would call down there; the radar units were shut down.
You know, that Saturday, they took us off the alert. They'd had the alert on the week before because we didn't know where the hell the Japanese navy was. All of a sudden, bingo, the alert's taken off.
When he was relieved Sunday morning, Joe came into the tent -- we slept in the same tent -- and woke me up.
He said to me, "Hey Shim, the Japs are coming."
This was before the attack. I don't know if it was a joke or why he said it. He didn't know what it was, exactly. He didn't talk about it too much.
We didn't realize what it was until we started hearing the bombing.
With the alert off, they weren't supposed to be working the radar. But Joe Lockard and another guy by the name of George Elliott were practicing at the radar station [at Opana, on the northern tip of Oahu]. Lockard was teaching Elliott the ropes.
The plotters weren't even at the information center that Sunday morning. All that was there were Joe McDonald and the officer of the day.
Elliott picked up the planes, and because he was the new guy and he wasn't quite sure, he asked Lockard to look at it. Lockard checked it, and Elliott called in to the information center and talked to Joe McDonald.
Joe went to see the officer of the day [Lt. Kermit Tyler]. That lieutenant knew there were planes, our own planes, coming in from the West Coast -- 12 B-17s; they would have put up a nice mark on the screen. He went back and forth between McDonald and Lockard.
Joe McDonald was alarmed; it could be Japanese planes. He asked the lieutenant if he should call the plotters to come back, and he didn't think so.
When they said a large amount of planes, I think [Lt. Tyler] should have questioned it.
On radar, all you see is a wave going across and all of a sudden you see a blip. The wider the blip, the more planes were coming in. But you can't tell how many planes. We used to say several or many, by the size of the blip.
As the radar unit would pick up the airplanes, they would call in and send the coordinates in to us at the information center. And then on this big table, we had all the islands and the ocean. We would plot the coordinates on the board with spindles, and we could tell where the airplanes were.
After Joe came into the tent and woke me up, we were in there talking. I was the fifth person to know about the report of the airplanes coming, if you figure from Elliot to Lockard to McDonald to Tyler, then me.
A little later, we could hear explosions.
We were on like a plateau; we could look over and see all of Pearl Harbor. You could see the planes and you'd lose sight of them, then all of a sudden you'd see a puff of smoke as they were diving and dropping their bombs.
We actually thought it was maneuvers, what we called a sham battle. They'd use smoke bombs.
Then all of a sudden, somebody turned on a radio -- the only station they had in Honolulu at the time -- and that's when we heard:
"Pearl Harbor's being attacked! It might be Japanese planes!"
We ran to the mess hall and got up on the roof. Where we were, when you looked over, there was nothing but dead land. It's where they kept the trash. There were about 30 guys doing the same thing we were doing -- watching.
Then our antiaircraft guns started firing from in back of us. We got down and ran back to our tent and got our .45s and our gas masks. We rushed down to the information center, which was right next to the [dump], and did anything we could -- worked the switchboard and the plotting board.
By that time, everybody was being called back.
Several months after the Pearl Harbor raid, Schimmel was assigned to set up an information center on Maui. After that, he spent six months on Canton Island, north of American Samoa, where he endured three bombings by the Japanese. Then he returned to Hawaii. Altogether, he spent 56 months overseas.
He rose from private first class to staff sergeant with the 580th Signal Aircraft Warning Company.
Back home, he became a Sears appliance salesman, retiring in 1984. He and his wife, Yolanda, have been married for 61 years and have two sons, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Schimmel belongs to the Lehigh-Pocono Chapter of the Pennsylvania Survivors of Pearl Harbor.
Asked if anything would have been different if the authorities had heeded the radar warning, he said:
"If they could have gotten those planes up in the air, there would have been more of a battle. [The Japanese] might have succeeded in what they were doing, but we might have been able to fire back. The aftermath wouldn't have been as bad."
Joe Lockard, who excitedly reported seeing a swarm of incoming planes on his screen, lives in Harrisburg. Kermit Tyler, the lieutenant who told Lockard, "Well, don't worry about it," lives in San Diego. George Elliott died in 2003. Joe McDonald, who grew up in Archibald, Luzerne County, died in 1994.
After the war, Schimmel stayed in touch with McDonald, who fretted over whether he'd done enough to warn his superiors on the "day of infamy."
"We used to correspond all the time," Schimmel said. "He'd call me up and say, "Why didn't I go over the officer's head?'