WASHINGTON — It happened 75 years ago in Hawaii, but the Pearl Harbor attack that left 2,400 Americans dead and another 1,200 injured is still a vivid memory for Betty Kenealy, of Fairfax County, Virginia, and she still counts her blessings for having lived through it.
“I can’t believe it’s been that many years,” said Kenealy, now in her 80s, of the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt described as a “date which will live in infamy” the next day in his speech calling for a declaration of war.
Dec. 7, 1941, started off like most Sundays when Kenealy was 9 years old. Every Sunday morning her father would take her and her brothers to the beach near the tiny John Rogers Airport, now the sprawling Honolulu International Airport, to watch the planes take off before the family went to church, so her mother could feed the baby.
Kenealy said the children loved watching the planes and did not want to leave. “But it was a good thing we did because about 10 minutes after that they machine-gunned the airfield,” she said.
Meanwhile back at the house, as the family was getting ready to leave for church, her father heard the bombings and looked out the window to see the Japanese planes with the rising-sun emblems on the wings.
“There had been a lot of talk about the Japanese wanting Hawaii. So he knew right away we were being attacked,” Kenealy said.
After the attack, it was complete chaos. Kenealy said that “By that time, everything had gotten bad. You could hear the bombing in Pearl Harbor and everything.” Her father decided the best thing for them was to get out of there. “He was afraid they were going to come back and bomb again and bomb the housing,” she said.
Her father got the family out of the house and they headed to the car. She remembers that their neighbors were out in the street just standing, watching and looking, in a trance-like state.
Kenealy said she felt scared when a plane that seemed lost looked down at them, but the pilot didn’t attack them.
Her father immediately packed the family in the car, and they got onto the highway before the Japanese machine-gunned the roads. They drove 30 minutes to a friend’s house on the other side of the island.
But her dad had to return to Pearl Harbor, and spent three days trying to rescue sailors from damaged ships. “He could hear the men sometimes knocking. I guess they close off certain areas of the ship, and, of course, they couldn’t get to them,” she said.
It was a frightening time for people on the island. “We heard all kinds of rumors — that paratroopers were landing, that our water was poisoned,” she said.
Kenealy said they lived under constant fear of a Japanese invasion, and Hawaii, which was then a territory, was placed under martial law that lasted until October 1944.