Walter T. Oka’s Eyewitness Account – Dec. 7, 1941
September 27, 2016
Walter Tadao Oka had a front-row view of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. He was the 13th child, and ninth son, of parents who immigrated from Japan.
The family home was the former nurse’s quarters of the old Aiea plantation hospital. It was on the Pearl City side of the Aiea Cemetery. The cemetery is still there, hemmed in by roads, but the Oka home is long gone, replaced by the Kamehameha Highway connection to Moanalua Freeway.
Back then, sugar was king in Hawaii, and a green sea of cane fields stretched from Red Hill to Waipahu and beyond to Ewa. Walter’s father and four siblings worked for the Aiea plantation. His brothers were all handy. Two were welders, one was a carpenter, another an electrician. There were two Harley Davidson motorcycles that they often worked on.
Walter was one of the neighborhood boys who frequented the nearby Navy pier and railroad station. They would sell newspapers and chewing gum to sailors, or shine their shoes. Walter was fascinated by the Navy ships, and he would ask sailors for matchbooks whose covers bore pictures of their ships. He had a big collection.
Here is his account of the attack, written in 2012.
In His Own Words
On Dec. 7, 1941, the climate in Hawaii was, as usual, peaceful, serene, and sunny with a trade wind breeze flowing from the mountain side towards Battleship Row on the east side of Ford Island, which was situated in the middle of Pearl Harbor. I lived in the sugar plantation town of Aiea, where my father and four of my 11 siblings worked.
Our house was a former nurse’s quarters of the old Aiea Plantation Hospital which was located on a bluff about 50 feet above the shore of Pearl Harbor and about one mile away from Ford Island with a panoramic view of the harbor. The ward section of the former hospital was used as a dormitory for the single Filipino workers.
Ford Island is where the battleships docked on the east side and several cruisers, the USS Utah, and a tender secured on the west side. The aircraft carriers moored on the south side of the island. The other destroyers and cruisers were anchored on the north and north-east side of the harbor.
In 1941, it was routine for the whole Pacific fleet, after their weekly sea exercises, to return to Pearl Harbor on Friday. It was like a parade of ships; led by destroyers and followed by cruisers, auxiliary ships, battleships and aircraft carriers. the reverse would occur on Monday. Also, on Sunday mornings, the U.S. Army Air Corps would simulate mock attacks of dive bombing on the battleships and I would stand on the porch and watch these exercises.
On Dec. 7, 1941, I was a 13-and-a-half-year-old youngster listening to the radio in our living room with three of my brothers, Shizuo, Kazuyoshi and David, and two of my sisters, Tomie and Yoshie, and my dad. At about 7:50 a.m., we heard the sound of roaring airplanes and subsequent heavy explosions and machine gun fire. We ran out to the porch to see what was happening.
I looked towards the harbor and saw many formations of dive bombers swooping down on the battleships, low flying torpedo bombers heading towards the battleships and my brother, Kazuyoshi, saw the planes dropping torpedoes. With over 100 aircraft buzzing all over the ships causing explosions, fire and dark smoke billowing in columns skyward from the damaged ships, I was stunned and in awe.
I saw the USS Utah on the west side of Ford Island start to topple and capsize. Almost simultaneously, the USS Oklahoma was slowly listing and in about five to eight minutes capsized completely.
No sooner, a horrific explosion on the USS Arizona occurred — which I can only explain in onomatopoeic terms, “KAAA-POWWW!!!” — flames roared and smoke towered skyward and a few seconds later, the concussion from the blast hit my body with such force that it caused me to stagger back.
In all of this mayhem, I said to myself, “Boy! The Army is mad at the Navy and is dropping real bombs and torpedoes at the ships. They must be really, really mad at the Navy.” Remember, this is the mindset of a 13-and-a-half-year-old boy, who, on Sunday mornings, witnessed many, many previous mock attacks on the battleships by the U.S. Army Air Corps. During the attack, a plane flew overhead and I saw the “meat ball” insignia on the wings and, only then, did I realize that it was Japanese planes attacking our ships.
After about 30 minutes of roaring planes, gun fire and explosions, it became quiet except for some occasional explosions and flare-up of fires. The columns of dark smoke from the burning ships flowed high toward the sky and southward toward the sea. I did not see any planes being shot out of the sky during this first attack.
Soon after, the roar of about another 100 planes appeared and started their second attack on the burning ships, port facilities and ground facilities on Ford Island which was a Navy airport. All of a sudden, I saw and heard a spectacular explosion that filled the sky with a fireball of flame and debris.
The shock wave was not as noticeable as when the USS Arizona was hit. Later, I learned that the ship’s name was the USS Shaw, a destroyer, which was in dry dock.
On the second wave of the attack, the damaged ships were ready and fired many antiaircraft guns and machine guns at the attacking planes. You could hear the blasts of the weapons and many flaming planes streaked across the sky and crashed into the harbor. A couple of machine gun bullets hit the top of our roof, but somehow, it never occurred to us that we were in danger and kept watching the attack in awe.
All of the roar of the airplanes, antiaircraft gun bursts, machine gun fire, streaking planes in flames crashing into the harbor, the continuing explosions of the ships, and billowing columns of dark smoke filling the sky and flowing southward to the sea, presented a surreal experience that brought the thought: “Is this for real!” but it was quickly dismissed by the reality of the experience. Then, after another horrific 30 minutes or so, the roar of the airplanes disappeared and all was quiet.
Then, I noticed little boats with fire hoses trying to quench the fire and other boats milling around the damaged ships and later learned that they were picking up survivors who were either blown off the ships or dove into the harbor for safety.
Later that day, I saw trucks with blood-stained wooden coffins passing below our house on Kamehameha Highway to a temporary burial ground in the nearby Red Hill area. That very day, it was announced by radio that martial law was in effect. No lights were permitted after dark and windows had to be covered according to regulations before we could turn our lights on.
After the first attack, two of my older brothers, Mitsuo and Kazuyoshi, reported to the Aiea Plantation mill. Another brother, David, who was a student at the University of Hawaii and a member of the ROTC program, was ordered to report to the university and we did not see him for eight weeks. He returned home and was discharged because he was Japanese. The government reclassified all Americans of Japanese Ancestry (AJA) from A-1 to 4-C, which is a classification of an Enemy Alien. Later, in 1943, the AJAs were reclassified back to A-1.
On the second day after the attack, a sailor from the USS Arizona, who said that he was on the deck during the attack and was blown off into the water and a marine, who jumped off the capsizing USS Oklahoma, came to our house seeking a Walter T. Oka, who knew so much about the ships in the harbor. I had collected as many match covers of naval ships as possible that moored at Pearl Harbor. I became very familiar with the names and locations of the ships. I was not at home when the agents came and saw a family picture on the wall and asked my brother, Haruto, which of the boys was Walter. He pointed at the youngest boy and the agents were disappointed and left.
All seven of Walter’s brothers volunteered for the Army. Of the four who were accepted, three served in combat in Europe with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team: Mitsuo with Company H, Kazuyoshi with Company F and David with Battery B of the 522nd Field Artillery Battalion. Shizuo served in Hawaii with the 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion.
It was David who was called to arms on Dec. 7 with the University of Hawaii Reserve Officer Training Corps, as part of the Hawaii Territorial Guard. The majority of the UH ROTC cadets were Americans of Japanese ancestry. They were joined by high school Junior ROTC cadets and other volunteers, guarding key installations with obsolete bolt-action rifles and five rounds of ammunition apiece. By the end the month, the Territorial Guard numbered more than 1,300. An Army official estimated they freed six companies of infantry for combat.
The guardsmen performed their duties faithfully, as did the 2,000 AJAs serving in the Army Hawaii. In late January 1942, however, amid a wave of suspicion of all Japanese persons, the Territorial Guard discharged all of its Nisei members. Some would try to prove their loyalty by performing manual labor for the Army with the Varsity Victory Volunteers. In early 1943, creation of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team was authorized.
Walter graduated from Waipahu High School in 1946 and enlisted in the Army. He would serve in the occupation of Japan with the 354th Headquarters Intelligence Detachment. After his service, Oka earned degrees at the University of Cincinnati and worked in medical technology and teaching in that city until he retired in 1991.
In 2011, 70 years after the Pearl Harbor attack, Oka went to the Capitol in Washington, D.C., for the presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to the World War II veterans of the 100th Battalion, 442nd RCT and Military Intelligence Service. “In spite of the repressive and punitive treatment of the AJAs during World War II by the government of the United States, the heoric deeds of the Nisei soldiers were finally recognized,” he said.