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Remember Pearl Harbor!

US poster commemorating Pearl Harbor, 1942Seventy-nine years ago, on December 6, 1941, twelve B-17 Flying Fortresses left Hamilton Field, north of San Francisco, bound for their new station on Mindanao in the Philippines. My great-uncle, then Lt. Roderick M. Stewart, served as a navigator on one of the crews.

The first leg of their journey would take them to Hickam Field in Honolulu. Weighted down by gasoline for the thirteen-hour flight, they were unable to carry ammunition. But why would they need it? The United States of America was at peace.

When the B-17s neared Hawaii the next morning, they were pleased to see fighter planes approach – to escort them to the landing field, they assumed. Imagine their shock when the fighters opened fire on them! When the fighters careened past and the Americans saw the red circles on the planes! Japanese Mitsubishi Zeros. The United States of America was no longer at peace.

Wreck of B-17C bomber at Hickam Field, Territory of Hawaii, 7 Dec 1941 (US National Archives)

Wreck of B-17C bomber at Hickam Field, Territory of Hawaii, 7 Dec 1941 (US National Archives)

The twelve unarmed bombers dodged both enemy bullets and friendly antiaircraft shells and landed where they could on fields cratered by bombs. Eight landed at Hickam Field, two at Haleiwa Field, one at Bellows Field, and one put down on Kahuku Golf Course. One of the planes was destroyed, and three were damaged. Six men were wounded, and one man was killed.

Plot from the Opana Radar Station from 7 December 1941, showing the Japanese planes approaching Pearl Harbor (Valor in the Pacific Museum. Photo: Sarah Sundin, 7 Nov 2016)

Plot from the Opana Radar Station from 7 December 1941, showing the Japanese planes approaching Pearl Harbor (Valor in the Pacific Museum. Photo: Sarah Sundin, 7 Nov 2016)

In an interesting historical side note, the brand-new Opana Radar Station detected the Japanese planes coming in for the attack, but the officer in charge, who had started duty that very morning, dismissed the findings, certain the radar blips depicted the expected B-17s. We’ll never know if an extra half hour of preparation could have prevented some of the day’s tragedy.

Lt. Col. Roderick Stewart

Lt. Col. Roderick Stewart

Lt. Rod Stewart emerged unscathed, served illustriously as a B-17 pilot in the Army Air Force in the Pacific and then in Europe, ending up as a lieutenant colonel in Eisenhower’s Headquarters. He lived a long life and passed away in 2000.

However, on Dec. 7, 1941, over 2400 Americans lost their lives.

The horrific results of the “Date Which Will Live in Infamy” still shock us, as they should. The cost of unpreparedness must never be forgotten. We commemorate those who gave their lives for their country, not even knowing that country was at war, and give thanks for the millions who fought to end that war.

We must never take freedom for granted.

4 Responses to “Remember Pearl Harbor!”

  1. Debbi Lawson

    Thanks for posting your uncle’s story, Sarah…Who knows, maybe my mom, who lived in San Anselmo and under the flight path of the B-17’s leaving Hamilton, saw them leave that morning and maybe they dipped their wings at her as she waved to them, as they often did!!! Or maybe my cousin, who flew a P51 mustang over Europe was one of the fighter escorts for your uncle!! We are enriched by the stories of these brave men and women who rose up to serve when called. The stories that our families have of that infamous day are diverse and personal, but they are woven into the fabric of our great nation’s history and tell a story of personal sacrifice, community and patriotism that we have rarely seen since. The “greatest generation” is quickly disappearing, and it is up to us to keep the stories alive!

  2. Debbie Burgess-Uneberg

    Love this story Sarah. So proud of cousin Rod and you my dear cousin.