Pearl Harbor Defenders

In his war declaration to Congress following the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt judged December 7, 1941 as “a date that will live in infamy.” In the years since, certain pictures have dominated our national memory of what happened on that historic Sunday. They are the photographs that document the destruction the Japanese planes inflicted upon United States ships and installations. Some show battleships listing, capsized, or sunk.  Others convey the enormous damage the enemy inflicted with photographs of flames spreading on the oily waters surrounding the proud ships that composed the Pacific Fleet.  Still more pictures show burned-out shells of what had been Army, Navy, and Marine planes, parked on their respective airfields. Panoramic shots immortalize a smoke-filled sky that testifies to the horrific damage caused by enemy bombs that hit their targets on sea and on land. These are the images generations of Americans associate with Pearl Harbor,

We suggest another lens through which to view the history of December 7, 1941. Focus on the actions of the Pearl Harbor Defenders, members of the United States military who engaged the enemy during the Japanese aerial attack. They came to be called “Pearl Harbor Survivors,” men now in their nineties and some even older than that. Looking at them today, one might understandably see these veterans as “survivors,” in more than one way. Try to imagine them, however, as soldiers, sailors, and Marines in their late teens or early twenties. On that December day, men who could do so reported to their duty stations or fought where they stood for almost two hours.

The word "Survivors" emphasizes what was done to them (the men survived the Japanese attack). The word "Defenders" calls attention to what they did -- they engaged the enemy.

On Ford Island, sailors belt ammunition to be used by machine guns

Sandbags and guns on Ford Island create an antiaircraft emplacement.



Ground fire from Pearl Harbor Defenders hit a Japanese Zero fighter. The enemy plane had fired its machine guns in a strafing attack over Hickam Field. Note the smoke trail in the sky.


While the Japanese targeted Wheeler Field, an Army airbase, their battle plans ignored an Army landing strip sixteen miles away--Haleiwa Field. It was not much of a military installation, with only one unpaved runway. Haleiwa had been used for aerial gunnery practice, which is why ten planes sat on the field, temporarily assigned there. Most were from the 47th Pursuit Squadron.

Two of those pilots, Lieutenants Kenneth M. Taylor and George S. Welch, were at Wheeler Field’s Officers’ Club when the Japanese planes appeared in the sky over Pearl Harbor.  Acting on their own initiative, Taylor and Welch called Haleiwa Field. They ordered the squadron’s ground crew to arm their P-40 fighters and prepare them for takeoff. The two pilots then drove to Haleiwa, reportedly at a speed of one hundred miles an hour. Immediately after their arrival, the lieutenants took off to engage the enemy in the air. They did so over Marine Corps Air Station Ewa Mooring Mast, where Taylor and Welch experienced combat for the first time. Together, they shot down six Japanese planes that morning.

The primary target of enemy planes on December 7th was a line of vessels off of Ford Island in the center of Pearl Harbor--Battleship Row. On board the USS California was Chief Radioman Thomas J. Reeves. The hash marks on the left sleeve of his white jacket gave evidence of his long Navy career that had begun in 1917, just months after the United States entered World War I.  It is probably not an exaggeration to invoke the judgment, “The Navy was his life.” The chief oversaw a ninety-man radio division, respected by everyone who knew him.  On December 7th, torpedoes struck the California, resulting in fire and smoke that filled the ship. The main radio room on the third deck could no longer function. Reeves helped his men get to the upper deck. There he saw how critically the antiaircraft guns needed ammunition. The attack had destroyed a mechanized hoist that could have brought the ammo up to the main deck. Reeves thus went back down to the third deck to arrange a manual transfer of the ammo from below to above. While it was flooding, fire was also moving through the lower deck.  Nevertheless, the chief organized sailors to bring the ammo up by hand. At one point, Reeves collapsed from the smoke and flames. It is believed he died less than fifty feet from the radio compartment that had been his unchallenged domain. Chief Reeves was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.  


Over at the Marine Barracks, located on the grounds of the Navy Yard, Marines went into action. When the Japanese attack began just minutes before 8:00 a.m., Major Harold C. Roberts of the 3d Defense Battalion was at his home in Honolulu. He quickly drove back to his unit, arriving at the barracks around 8:20 a.m. as the second wave of enemy planes started to drop their bombs. The major established his command post at the southern corner of the parade grounds. From there, he issued several orders. With their guns in need of more ammunition, Roberts approved a plan to send Marines to two ammo dumps located outside the Navy Yard with the hope that one man could return with more ammunition. He set up a fire control system in the middle of the parade grounds; eight Marines acted as spotters, using field glasses to get a sighting on the enemy planes for battalion guns. What they saw was communicated to some buglers who then used their instruments as an alert system. One blast from the instruments, for example, meant planes had been spotted coming in from the north. Two blasts signaled an enemy approach from the east. Roberts also ordered groups of about sixteen riflemen each to sit on the ground near each other; an officer or NCO directed their combined fire at the Japanese planes.

One of the Marines in Roberts’ defense battalion was then-Private First Class Joe Walsh. As a 1943 military record of Joe’s reads, his service up to that point included his “participation in [the] defense of Pearl Harbor.” In the decades after the war, Joe’s good friend and fellow Marine Jim Evans preferred to be identified as a  “Pearl Harbor Defender” rather than a “Pearl Harbor Survivor.” We agree with Jim. This section of our web site honors the military men and women who served on the front line in the first hours of America’s entry into World War II. Some were able to engage the enemy on December 7, 1941. Caught by surprise, it did not take long for soldiers, sailors, and Marines who could do so to react as they had been trained to do, even though battle conditions did not favor them. Understand that for the majority of service personnel, December 7th represented their initiation into combat. We recall their actions and their fighting spirit when we “Remember Pearl Harbor.”



U.S. government poster,

c. 1942-1943

The First Pearl Harbor Day: During WW II, Americans paused each December 7th to “Remember Pearl Harbor.” They called the day itself “Pearl Harbor Day.” Read how one small town--Winchendon, Massachusetts--observed the first Pearl Harbor Day in December 1942.

Radio reports reached the continental United States while Japanese planes were still dropping their bombs upon American ships and installations. Read about when and how “the Home Front” first learned of the enemy attack at Pearl Harbor.

One December 8, 1941 newspaper carried the names of thirteen men in the United States military who died at Pearl Harbor. This was just one day after the attack. Read who those thirteen men were and read examples of how newspapers headlined the story out of Hawaii.

USMC Private First Class Joe Walsh was a member of a defense battalion temporarily stationed at Pearl Harbor, awaiting orders to ship out. Read how he and other Marines in his unit responded to the attack. (Background to Joe can be found on the Pacific Theater section of this web site under an entry on Joe and his wife Bea Walsh; it explains Joe’s enlistment as well as his service up to and after Pearl Harbor.]

USMC Corporal Ted Roosvall, Jr. wrote his father soon after the attack. A Chicago-area newspaper published part of the letter. Read about Ted and the story the paper printed.

Jud McDannold served as a radioman on an Admiral’s staff in December 1941. Read a story about Jud and read, too, his firsthand account of what he remembered years later about the enemy attack.

Patrol was a weekly paper published “on board the U.S. Submarine Base” at Pearl Harbor. The issues were, as Patrol announced, written “in the interest of Submarine Squadron Four and the Navy.” Pearl Harbor Defender Durrell Conner kept the March 14, 1942 edition all these years. Read Patrol’s “An Open Letter” addressed to the Axis Powers from “Uncle Sam’s Boys.”

Seaman 1st Class James E. Mason was a radioman on the USS Oglala. Read his account of December 7, 1941 and an accompanying story on Jim and his ship.

Yeoman 2nd class Durrell Conner served onboard the battleship USS California as a member of the Admiral’s coding board. As Durrell explains, “My job was to encode and decode all of his classified messages.” Soon after the enemy attack ended, Durrell raised the United States flag on the California. Read his firsthand account of that morning.

Louise Milke Moats Whatley, the wife of a civilian who worked for the military, experienced the Japanese attack firsthand. She and her husband “Scoop” lived, in Louise’s words, “about two blocks from Hickam Field,” the Army air base adjacent to Pearl Harbor. Two days after enemy planes appeared in the sky over Oahu, Louise wrote her family in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Her letter focused on the morning of December 7th and its immediate aftermath. As Louise explained, “we are right in the midst of all of it.” She vividly described the enemy attack. Read Louise’s December 9th letter and the Dec 10th telegram she sent her family.   Examine the envelope, front and back, which carried the December 9th letter from Hawaii to Iowa; note how long it took for the letter to go that distance. (Martial Law had been declared in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Censorship began immediately. The stamp “released by I.C.B” on the back of Louise’s envelope indicates that censors have read the letter and allowed it to leave the island. “I.C.B.” stands for the “Information Control Branch.”) And lastly, see Louise herself in two different photographs.