The balmy ocean air was a soothing companion for those stirring in their bunks after a late night of dancing at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. The adoring island girls, the cold cocktails and card games, and the silhouetted profile of Diamond Head Crater rising up behind the band blended dreams into reality for those stationed in Hawaii in the winter of 1941. But the morning of Dec. 7 transformed the peaceful lull of the Pearl Harbor Naval Base into a nightmare that still haunts the American psyche 71 years later.
On that fateful morning, the mess halls were busy, the skies were mostly sunny and everyone on base was anticipating a little Sunday relaxation. When the sound of gunfire erupted, most assumed it was routine target practice. But as the horrible hum of explosions grew and the Japanese red-sun emblem on a flock of Zero planes was sighted, the naval base at Pearl Harbor clicked into combat.
Walter Furst had just finished breakfast when the attack began at 7:55 a.m., and he quickly ran for cover. “You could see the bullets hitting the sand,” the 93-year-old veteran recalls. “They were trying to strafe us.” Furst volunteered for the Navy in 1941 while attending Kansas State University with the promise of becoming an officer in the Naval Reserves after he fulfilled a 90-day officer-training program. He would then be able to continue his studies at KSU.
Growing hostility between Japan and the United States, however, called for strengthening the Navy’s Pacific Fleet, and Furst was sent to Pearl Harbor aboard the USS Boggs. His antiaircraft gun training proved vital on Dec. 7. After the initial shock of the attack had subsided and Japanese planes still screamed overhead, Furst and his comrades decideded, “What the hell are we doing back here? Let’s go shoot back at them!” So they took their positions on the beach 50 yards from the shoreline, firing machine guns at enemy aircraft for two of the longest hours of their lives.
Walter Furst of Ventura had volunteered for the Naval Reserves and was stationed
Now a resident at the Veterans Home of Ventura, Furst credits his orneriness and God for his survival. But in those two hours, America suffered 2,403 casualties and another 1,178 were wounded. Japan’s carefully planned attack by air and sea utilized more than 350 aircraft, 30 surface ships and 35 submarines that destroyed or badly damaged 347 aircraft and 21 ships, including all eight battleships in the Pacific Naval Fleet.
Prior to the attack, war with Japan was imminent, and several military documents suggest that the American military was on alert to potential Japanese attacks in the Pacific. In July of 1941, after several stalemate political negotiations with Japan, President Franklin D. Roosevelt placed an embargo on oil exports to Japan (upon which Japan was vitally dependent). The economic sanctions were crippling to the depressed Japanese economy. The attack on Pearl Harbor was an effort by Japan to lure America into island battles in the resource-rich Central and Southwestern Pacific; and if Japan were victorious, it could bypass dependency on U.S. oil once and for all and continue with its territorial expansion into Southeast Asia.
Although Japan may have accomplished its immediate tactical goal of neutralizing America’s Pacific Naval Fleet, it underestimated the might of the incensed American response to Pearl Harbor. As Japanese Gen. Yamamoto admitted soon after the attack, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
Navy Comm. Keene pictured with Hawaiian girls shortly before the Pearl Harbor attack.
No previous event had united the American people as Pearl Harbor did. In one day, the public opinion of an isolationist nation turned sharply in favor of waging war with Japan, and on Dec. 8 Congress declared war. In allegiance to the Tripartite Pact with Japan, three days later Italy and Germany declared war on the United Sates and thus brought America into the Second World War. Thousands signed up for the draft, including those whose fathers and other relatives were killed in WWI only two decades earlier.
Pearl Harbor rekindled the warrior spirit in Native Americans, who understood the importance of defending one’s homeland. Even though, historically, they suffered tragic losses at the hands of the American government, 40 percent of all able-bodied Native American men forgave past wrongs and volunteered to fight “the white man’s war.” The Navajo Nation in Arizona contributed 3,600 to military service, and a select handful became Navajo Code Talkers. Utilizing the ancient language of their people, this small band of men created an unbreakable code that assisted every assault the U.S. Marines conducted in the Pacific Theater. Their impenetrable form of communication confounded Japanese forces and ultimately led the U.S. to a stealth victory in Japan.
A Pima Indian from the Gila River Reservation named Ira Hayes became immortalized as one of six soldiers “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” in Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph. Hayes enlisted in the Marine Forces in August of 1942, only one month after his reservation made room for more than 10,000 Japanese ordered to leave their jobs and homes in California in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack. Gila River Reservation became one of 10 primitive camps, euphemistically called “War Relocation Centers,” built in accordance with President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which sought to isolate potential Japanese espionage and disloyalty. By segregating the Japanese population, the Order also intended to curb further anti-Japanese sentiment, which was already commonplace in California, where 90 perecent of Japanese immigrants settled at the turn of the 19th century for agricultural work.
Ventura County’s Japanese communities flourished at the time of Pearl Harbor. The area’s prodigious farming industries drew hundreds of Japanese laborers in the early 1900s. The largest concentration settled in the city of Oxnard along Oxnard Boulevard between Fifth and Seventh Streets, where they built barbershops, billiard rooms, grocery stores, schools, laundry facilities and even a Buddhist temple.
Two-thirds of those sent to relocation camps were second-generation Nisei Japanese American citizens. They were young adults or school-age children born on American soil who generally worked to support family businesses and farms. Their parents, or first generation Issei, were denied American citizenship and land ownership rights, and often land titles were placed in the children’s names. Although they were promised eventual return to their homes in California, the evacuees who didn’t sell their land and belongings feared that their hard-earned farms and businesses would be confiscated.
Sometimes kind neighbors and friends did their best to maintain the businesses of Ventura County’s Japanese during the three years of their confinement at the Gila River Relocation Center. The late Nao Takasugi was a 19-year-old UCLA student when he was sent to the Relocation Center. His family’s Asahi Market was one of the first incorporated Japanese businesses in Oxnard in 1907, and it remains in business today at its original location on Oxnard Boulevard. In 1943, Takasugi was released from the internment camp to attend college at Temple University. After graduating in 1946 he returned to Oxnard to work at his family’s Asahi Market, which had been preserved during their detainment thanks to a faithful employee.
The Takasugi family of Japan in Ormond Beach, 1924. Nao Takasugi became mayor of Oxnard in 1982, and the family-run business, Asahi Market, is still around today on Oxnard Boulevard.
Takasugi went on to serve on the Oxnard City Council before becoming mayor of Oxnard in 1982. Before his death in 2009, he had served five terms as mayor and the maximum of three terms on the California State Assembly. In an interview with Tom Brokaw, Takasugi said about his time in the internment camp, “I find that I am compelled to remember the best, not the worst, of that time. To focus not on the grave deprivation of rights which beset us all, but rather on the countless shining moments of virtue that emerged from the shadows of that dark hour.”
When the U.S. declared war with Japan, the Issei were caught in a unique predicament: As Japanese citizens, they were suspected of being sympathetic to Japan, but they were unable to affirm their loyalty to the U.S. because they were refused American citizenship. Many young Nisei Japanese men left the internment camps to serve in the Army in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, comprising entirely Japanese soldiers, whose exceptional service in Europe proclaimed their loyalty to the U.S. Regarded as the most decorated infantry regiment in United States history, 21 of these former relocation camp internees were awarded the Medal of Honor in WWII.
Undoubtedly the experience of forced evacuation into circumstances that often did not honor basic human dignity was traumatic for the Japanese in this country, to say the least. But they demonstrated their cultural ingenuity and perseverance by building schools and baseball fields, creating art and their own governing structures. They continued to marry and have children, and generally tried to maintain some semblance of normalcy during perhaps their most difficult time in America.
Other major industry and demographic changes were occurring in Ventura County following the Pearl Harbor attack. Richard Bard’s dream of a seaport that would support the area’s agricultural goods had enjoyed only spotty success since Port Hueneme’s official opening in July of 1940. Once the U.S. entered WWII, the Navy searched the California coastline for a deepwater port to sustain the Pacific military campaign. Port Hueneme was purchased from the Bard family in 1942 under eminent domain to establish the Naval Construction Force, comprising construction battalions (CBa) or “Seabees” who would build more than 400 bases throughout the Pacific during WWII.
Lara Godbille, historian and director of the Seabee Museum in Port Hueneme, explained that prior to the Pearl Harbor attack, the Bureau of Yards and Docks (now the Naval Facilities Engineering Command) had already enlisted civilian contractors to start building bases on the Pacific islands in anticipation of a likely war with Japan. Once the U.S. was officially at war, these civilian workers were not protected under the Geneva Convention and immediately abandoned their projects to return to safety.
The USS Shaw (DD-373), a Mahan-class destroyer, named after Captain John Shaw, a Naval officer, was commissioned in 1936. The USS Shaw was in dry dock in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and sustained major damage from multiple bomb hits during the attack.
Adm. Ben Morreel, Commander of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, however, saw the demand for a military construction force that would have the right to bear arms and continue building much-needed bases. In December of 1941, only weeks after Pearl Harbor, his plan for a construction battalion was approved, and by March of 1942, Port Hueneme had been transformed into a large-scale naval base. Initially the construction battalions consisted of highly skilled contractors with extensive building experience. They were credited for laying the foundation of industrialized America in the 1930s, building roads, bridges, parks and other major construction projects funded by FDR’s Works Progress Administration. They came to the Port Hueneme Naval Base to receive basic military training before being shipped off as Seabees.
Responsible for building airstrips, roads, storage buildings, hospitals and more, the Port Hueneme Seabees literally paved the military road to Japan. “Seabees are expeditionary engineers,” says Godbille. “They build things on the front line so that the rest of the military can keep pushing forward.” In total, 175,000 Seabees were staged directly through Port Hueneme during WWII. In only a few short years, the military population largely outpaced agricultural workers in Ventura County at that time. Coupled with the Point Mugu Naval Air Warfare Center, today the Naval Base is the County’s largest employer, providing more than 19,000 jobs.
This year marks the 71st anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. It was one of those explosive moments in history for which people can recall exactly what they were doing when they heard the news or witnessed firsthand the chaos in Hawaii. It was an event that unified the public but also emphasized the racial prejudices that demonized Japanese American citizens, who were trying to start new lives in America, just like every other immigrant before them. Ultimately, the bombing of Pearl Harbor called out a fighting spirit in America that defeated the Axis Forces and silenced the voice of fascism.
Like many people who endure extreme trauma, Pearl Harbor survivor Walter Furst had a hard time remembering much about the rest of his day on Dec. 7. “It was one of those days, the experience you had, you kind of want to get it out of your mind,” he said as his coffee cup trembled in its saucer. “So I guess I was pretty successful at doing that.”
Those stationed at Pearl Harbor the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, displayed heroic courage to defend American values in the face of disaster, and for this they will forever be remembered.