DEC. 7, 1941: Remembering a day of infamy

When Robert Johnson heard planes flying toward Hawaii’s Hickam Field on Dec. 7, 1941, something didn’t seem right.

“I glanced out the window because I heard these planes coming in,” Johnson said. “And I thought the Navy wasn’t supposed to be flying over Hickam Field, and I didn’t know who they were.”

Johnson, now 89, was a parachute rigger for the Army Air Corps, which later became the Air Force, and was stationed at the airfield next to the Navy’s Pearl Harbor base, when Japan began its infamous attacks that eventually launched the United States into World War II.

Troops were curious about the incoming planes — as the only flights expected on the Sunday morning were from a group of seven cargo planes — and some went out onto the parade grounds to get a better idea of what was going on, Johnson said.

But from the third-floor window of his barracks, Johnson and others realized that the incoming fighter planes, flying unusually low, had Japanese markings and were flying so close to the barracks that the faces of the pilots were visible, Johnson said, adding that the space between his window and the planes was similar to the distance between his street-facing living room and the house on the other side of his quiet Eagle Rock road.

“As soon as we saw one come in, we saw an emblem of the Japanese on the side of their planes. That’s when I went down to the first floor,” Johnson said.

When he got there, bombs started to fall and eventually hit the barracks, killing some troops and disorienting others, Johnson said.

“When they hit the barracks, you felt like your shoes were going off your feet,” he said.

Johnson and others fled the building, running into the open before finding temporary cover in wooden shacks and then moving on to a nearby baseball diamond to hide out in a dugout. Although the attacks were over by midmorning, Johnson and the others with him continued to hide, moving to another location near the harbor entrance until the following morning.

The whole time they were scared for their lives, he said, and unaware of the devastation unfolding in Pearl Harbor, where the Navy lost four battleships, including the USS Arizona and its 1,177 crew members. In total, 2,390 people died in the attacks, including 182 at Hickam Field.

“All that shooting, you didn’t know what to do,” said Johnson, explaining that there was no one to direct troops or tell them what was happening.

Memories of the attack sometimes bring sadness to the veteran, his wife, Peggy Johnson said, adding that he sometimes looks through a collection of old newspaper clippings and photos related to the events.

“It brings tears to his eyes when he talks about it,” she said.

Johnson continued to serve in the Air Corps until his discharge in the summer of 1945. He enlisted in January 1941.

His memories of the attacks are sill clear and important to him and his family, said his son, William Johnson.

“It was a heavy day for him, and he’ll never forget it,” William Johnson said.


 ZAIN SHAUK covers education. He may be reached at (818) 637-3238 or by e-mail at zain.shauk@latimes.com.

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