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The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Letter from Ella regarding Pearl Harbor, 13 December 1941

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Object ID: WV0343.4.001

Description: Ella, stationed at Pearl Harbor, describes in detail the Japanese attack and the effects it had on the lives of people on base and in the city. Topics include America's denial of the potential for attack; hearing the attack; rushing to the hospital; the atmosphere in the hospital; news reports; being under martial law; working during blackouts; her thoughts on how America should respond; the war elsewhere; and the reaction of other hospital personnel.

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Collection: Pearl Harbor Letter

Rights: It is responsibility of the user to follow the copyright law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). Materials are not to be reproduced in published works without written consent, and any use should credit Jackson Library, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Full Text:

Hello Every one:

Am off duty this week end and thought maybe you would be looking for a letter. So am writing this but have no idea when the next mail will leave.

Yes, it happened here; the thing that everyone in the country predicted—that is everyone but the people living in Hawaii. We sat here smugly satisfied that nothing could happen to Oahua—of course not; we were so well fortified—?—Well, something went wrong somewhere, evidently. Honolulu was caught sleeping and a most terrible thing happened here last Sunday.

I had slipped off duty about 7:30 - it was quiet in the office and I decided to go over to the Convent to 8 o'clock mass. I heard the guns and the planes—the bombing started at 7:55, but just thought it was part of regular maneuvers (we've heard it all so often). I had wanted to go to town at 9:00 for a lecture on various phases of medicine, so I phoned the Hospital to see if the girl whom I had left in the office needed me. She said: “am I ever glad you 'phoned; Honolulu is having an air raid.” I hurried across the back fence here, dashed into my uniform and ran to the Hospital and found two badly injured children already admitted.

Well, we had them come in all day; we worked until dark, then took blood for plasma from fifteen donors. It was our first black-out, and we had to take all the blood with flash light and blue-papered bulbs. We could see out over the harbor all day and saw the enemy planes and the anti-air craft. The bombing continued for four hours or more and four of us on the surgery porch had the horrible experience of seeing five planes come directly over the Hospital, then turn and some bombs fell about a half block from here. We stood there in fascinated horror—two interns, Dr. W. and Dr. S and another surgery nurse, Miss D. None of us said a word, but when it was over we found we were standing in a little huddle and each of us had reached out to touch one of the others in the crowd. One feels so helpless.

You have heard news reports on the radio. I tune in to get the coast stations now that our two stations are quiet, so I know you've had the "blanket news" and that is all they want people to know. I guess it is alright. The Government doesn't want anyone to know how bad it all was. Airplane fields destroyed, and all the planes on them, two battleships (but their names were given out). The loss of life is incredible—Soldiers and Marines killed, etc etc.

Well, that day is over, and we hope and pray never to have it happen again. The fault surely lies somewhere and I hope it can be corrected. But the whole surprise was so cleverly done, well organized and well executed, that it shows remarkable planning and cunning.

We are all shocked and subdued. A strange calm hangs over the once gay city; we are under Martial Law, which means that the Army has taken over the city, and the police, the power plants, the drugs, the traffic, etc. No gatherings of crowds are allowed. The movies are open only in the afternoons, the streets are cleared of all unnecessary traffic at five P.M. (It is dark at 5:30 now). We've had black-outs since Sunday night and, when I say black I mean black. You have no idea how black a city can be when people set their minds to do a thing we feel is so vitally important.

I have the surgery all blacked out, and a darn good job it is too, if I do say so. We are able to have the big lights on and have had several emergencies at nights so we know it works well.

The poor civilian doctors have all been working day and night at the Army and Navy hospitals, and all the loose nurses were pressed into service there. They will be the unsung heroes, but everyone admits they are the good old standbys in cases of great need. Poor Miss McKay had gone for the week-end until she could drive her car back from the other side of the island about five, so she missed our busy day. But the nurses were all perfectly wonderful, and I have only the highest praise for them for the way they worked and carried out orders, with bombs falling nearby, guns blasting the clear morning air, and devilish black planes flying very low.

You see it was such a surprise attack that the enemy planes came in very low and did most of the damage before the Army and Navy were awake enough to realize we were being attacked. I suppose this is no time to be resentful—I know we all feel nothing can be done about what has happened. The thing is to be prepared so it won't happen again.

It seems incredible that an enemy aircraft carrier could get so close to here without being detected. What did they use for a base? Who sold us out? Also, now I hope the “Bundles for Britain” racket will stop and that Washington sees that we have the supplies and defense we need here. There has been a lot happen that won't do to write, just now. We have surely had our eyes opened to a terrible reality. I suppose you wonder how I felt about it all—am I worried? Yes, because I know that what happened once can probably happen again. Are we panicky? Not at all. The nurses have rallied to the age-old call of service, and probably have the same spirit that prompted old Florence N. to go to Crimea. At least we know that we can do some good, and bombed fictims [sic] are not pretty (can't qualify that statement). But, best of all, I can tell you this—I am not afraid. Strange, isn't it? But I feel no fear. I've always been afraid of that emotion, and know that it does awful things to people, so I am grateful that I have been spared fear.

I have my room blacked out at night and ready by a little forty watt bulb with blue cellophane over it. I bought a new album of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony and it is a beauty too. Then I bought some Christmas records, so I have little concerts for myself.

Food and gasoline are scarce this week, but if the enemy isn't between here and S.F. (Heaven forbid) we will probably be getting supplies soon.

Was shocked to hear that the west coast was having a black-out too and of course thought of the boys. I got a little sick at my stomach when the report came out that Wake and Midway were taken—they aren't far from here, but that was a false report so I'm feeling easier. The reports are rather vague about Guam, and I feel sorry for the Philippines. They haven't much defense. You know they are all depending upon the U.S. and believe me, our Navy is having to cover a lot of fronts just now. Knox is here. Don't know what the heck he is here for, probably trying to find out just who was asleep. Have no time for him anyway, so whatever he does, won't impress me.

As I said, our two radio stations are off - taken over by the Government, I guess, so we just have broadcasts of important announcements. I tune in on the coast stations and have been able to get a lot (except that S.F. and L.A. have been off on their black-out nights).

Imagine my surprise to hear WHO Des Moines, signing off at 1:00 A.M. It was 8:30 P.M. here. I was sorry I didn't get their program. Have not been able to get them except that one evening.

I am going up to Elizabeth's tomorrow after Mass—we can sit around and chat. All the nurses have been on call all the time, day or night, and we are supposed to return to the Hospital at dark. There is no argument there though, no one wants to be out on the street after that.

Don't worry about me. It won't do any good, and there's nothing that can be done about it. Jose [sic] hope and pray that things will straighten out soon and, above all things, that we are not bombed again.

We are all well and busy—it gives one no time to think, so it is better that way. There is lots to do and Honolulu has quieted down to something one would never recognize, but we are all in this war. Things don't look any too cheerful, but we aren't going to let it get us down.

Love to you all, Ella