Weird History

What It Was Like To Experience The Attack On Pearl Harbor Firsthand 

Genevieve Carlton
Updated February 26, 2019 18.4k views 14 items

President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared December 7, 1941, would live in infamy. On that day, Japan launched a surprise strike against the US Naval Station Pearl Harbor just outside of Honolulu, HI. Over 2,400 Americans lost their lives, including 2,008 members of the Navy, 218 Army service members, 109 Marines, and 68 civilians. The devastating event destroyed the USS Arizona, taking over 1,100 lives as the ship erupted and plunged to the ocean floor. 

As the number of survivors who witnessed the Pearl Harbor attack dwindles, we learn about it from textbooks rather than firsthand accounts. American and Japanese students alike believe teachers and textbooks don't thoroughly explain what happened that day. These eyewitness accounts from people who survived the incident - including servicemen on the Arizona and civilian children - help create a vivid account of the infamous day.

Jim Downing Saw Men Beco... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list What It Was Like To Experience The Attack On Pearl Harbor Firsthand
Photo: US Navy/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Jim Downing Saw Men Become Human Torches

Jim Downing was 28 when the Japanese struck the base. He served as a crew member on the USS West Virginia, and the memories haven't left him since that day. Downing recalled in 2015, "Most of what happened is just as clear as if it were last week."

The horrors of the incident were seared into Downing's mind. He remembered:

The saddest thing I saw that morning was sailors being blown off the ship, come up out of the water, feel the oil on their bodies... and they just became human torches. [...] Once the Japanese had sunk our ship, they didn't care, so all we had to do was fight the fires and take care of the wounded.

Ruth Erickson Saw The Da... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list What It Was Like To Experience The Attack On Pearl Harbor Firsthand
Photo: Unknown/DodLive/Public Domain
Ruth Erickson Saw The Damage Up Close

Ruth Erickson, a nurse, was drinking coffee when she heard the roar of planes and thought, "The 'fly boys' are really busy at Ford Island this morning." But soon Erickson heard eruptions and gunfire. She raced to the door, where a plane flew directly overhead. "Had I known the pilot, one could almost see his features around his goggles," she remembered. 

Erickson's chief nurse called out, "Girls, get into your uniforms at once, this is the real thing!" The nurses had to dodge shrapnel to reach their dressing room. Within half an hour of the strike, wounded men began to stream in. Erickson's first patient had a bleeding abdominal wound and perished on the operating table. 

"Then the burned patients streamed in," Erickson recalled. The men had jumped off their ships into burning oil. The nurses tried to help the men with tannic acid treatments and sedatives. 

On December 7, 1941, "the priest was a very busy man," Erickson said.

Lauren Bruner Couldn't Forget The Sight Of Wounded Men

Lauren Bruner avoided talking about what he saw on December 7, 1941, for decades; he waited years to confide in someone. That day, Bruner was stationed on the USS Arizona. When a bomb hit the ship, the blast burned two-thirds of Bruner's body. Trapped with six others on the deck, Bruner only survived because a sailor managed to throw a line to the men.

But one sight still haunts Bruner. Author Ed McGrath related their conversation:

[Bruner] told me that the ship was listing and he was looking down on the deck, and there are bodies everywhere. He said he spotted these two sailors wearing their white uniforms, and the way they were walking, they looked like two friends taking a walk. He said he thought they'd be okay and were going to make it. Then, he said, they turned around, and their uniforms were burned off, their hair was burned off, and even their [genitals] were burned off.

Charles Lishman Wanted T... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list What It Was Like To Experience The Attack On Pearl Harbor Firsthand
Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Charles Lishman Wanted To Sit And Cry

Charles Lishman's Navy enlistment ended just days before the incident. He planned to head home to his wife on December 8, 1941.

Lishman was eating breakfast with his shipmates aboard the USS Perry when he saw Japanese planes in the air. “We looked up and my gosh, they started blowing everything up,” Lishman said in 2011. “We wondered what was going on.”

Soon the ship was surrounded by flames, and the crew set out to look for enemy submarines. Lishman said:

I remember the flames, and I thank God how lucky we were that they didn’t hit the fuel tanks. They could have wiped out the entire fleet. [...] When we came back to the channel, we saw everything was burning and, man, that’s when it hit us. That’s when you wanted almost to sit there and cry.