HONOLULU — In some ways, it could be any class photo from the 1940s. The sepia-toned image shows 30 fifth-graders — 26 girls and four boys — at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Waikiki. Most are smiling, some look stern. A few have no shoes.
Yet this picture is different in one striking way: Each child is holding a bag containing a gas mask, a sign of how war had suddenly broke apart the routines of their adolescence on Dec. 7, 1941.
Three of the students, now in their mid-80s and all friends who have kept in touch over the years, reflected recently on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 75 years ago and the mark it left on their childhoods, of the innocence and of the fear.
Joan Martin Rodby remembered the carefree walks to school, and her family building an air raid shelter in their yard. Florence Seto, who is Japanese-American, recalled sharing ice cream with Rodby, and being worried that her family would be taken away.
Emma Veary reminisced about her days singing, and her family covering the windows at night so Japanese pilots couldn’t use the light of homes to guide them.
On the morning of Dec. 7, a Sunday, Japanese bombers flew across Oahu and began their assault. Some children climbed onto the roofs of homes to see what was happening. The planes were so close to the ground in some cases that they could make out the Rising Sun insignia.
Soon, smoke rose over the water, about 10 miles from Veary’s home near Waikiki.
Veary, then 11, climbed atop a neighbor’s house. Back then, Waikiki didn’t have any high-rise hotels and condominiums to block the view, so she could see all the way to the naval base. Her parents yelled at her to get down as soon as they heard about the attack.
Seto, who lived a few blocks away near homes belonging to Navy families, remembered a neighbor rushing out of her home, screaming about how the Japanese, using an epithet common at the time, had attacked Pearl Harbor.
The young Seto ran home, and, using the same word, told her parents, both immigrants from Japan.
“That didn’t go over too well,” she said.
The attack killed more than 2,300 people, nearly half of them on the battleship USS Arizona. More than 1,100 were injured. After the attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a speech before Congress, calling Dec. 7 a “date which will live in infamy.” The U.S. declared war against Japan.
Veary, Seto and Rodby suddenly found themselves living in a war zone, as an ever-present worry about a Japanese invasion permeated life in their island home.
About a month or two after the attack, Rodby and her classmates were issued gas masks. Rodby, who was 10 at the time, remembers being tested on how quickly she could don the mask. If an air raid siren went off, they had to be able to put the masks on in seconds.
The children put their gas masks around the backs of their chairs while in class. When playing outside, they kept them in a set spot so they could grab them right away.
“It was like an extra arm we had to have all the time,” Rodby said.
At home, her father, who worked at Honolulu Iron Works, built an air raid shelter in their yard. They didn’t know how long the war would last or how long they would need it, so they stocked it with pillows, blankets, dishes and a kerosene lamp to make it comfortable.
“We would have food down there and artificial lighting and the more we needed the air raid shelters, the fancier they got inside. I mean, people would have beds and they put flooring in,” she said.
Her school had air raid trenches dug by parents and volunteers. They were covered with grass, tin or wood so any airplanes flying overhead wouldn’t be able to spot them.
Many of Rodby’s war memories are happy ones, though. She recalls walking and skipping the four blocks or so from her home to the school, meeting friends along the way. They’d be a big group by the time they reached campus.
Seto said the only scary part of the entire war was when military police, carrying guns with fixed bayonets, showed up at her house looking for her father.
Her neighbors, who served in the Navy, suspected he was hoarding food and reported him after he used his painting business truck to load up on Vienna sausage, Spam and rice for friends.
Seto’s immigrant parents had trouble communicating with the police. Her brothers explained what their father was doing and gave the police the names of families they were helping. The military police apologized and left, she said.
The families who called the police were good friends of the Setos. Their children played with Seto and her siblings. “They were just afraid. It was a scary time,” she said.
Government authorities detained 1,330 Japanese-Americans and Japanese nationals from Hawaii, particularly community leaders like Shinto priests and teachers. Seto said her father was investigated, but she believes he was spared because a business associate vouched for his trustworthiness.
But a family friend, a restaurant owner, was deported. “We didn’t know any details except my mother and father would talk about it and then hush up when we would come close by,” she said.
Many of Seto’s other memories were happy ones. She had the most fun helping out in the pineapple fields to fill in for men who left to serve in the military.
“Everyone did their part,” she said.
Soon after the attack began, Veary’s father got a call to go to Pearl Harbor to help rescue sailors. He was a tug boat captain for a local shipping company. He didn’t come back for more than a day.
Life under the threat of further Japanese attacks meant her family had to cover their windows to block any light from escaping at night. Wardens would patrol neighborhoods to make sure no light was visible through the windows. They would knock on the door of offending houses.
But there were plenty of light-hearted moments, too. She practiced her singing, including in front of audiences — a talent that would later become her profession. During the holidays, Veary’s brother and sister would bring servicemen they met on the bus home to eat food cooked by their mother and their neighbors.
“We weren’t a well-to-do family, but whatever we had we liked to share,” Veary said.
Veary would occasionally hear from some of them, until a few years ago.
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