Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Where were you on Pearl Harbor Day?

Leonard Humiston about a year before the Pearl Harbor attack
Where Were You on Pearl Harbor Day?
By Hans Zeiger
(A version of this story appeared in the Puyallup Herald on December 3, 2008)

Late on December 6, 1941, a dozen B-17 “Flying Fortresses” left Hamilton Field, California, bound for the Philippines. In the co-pilot’s seat on plane number 7 of the 38th Reconnaissance Squadron sat Lt. Leonard Smith Humiston of Puyallup.

Len joined the Army Air Corps immediately after graduating from Puyallup High School in 1935, training to fill the posts of mechanic, gunner, and pilot. Earlier in 1941, he married a nurse from Puyallup named Frances Nelson. The ceremony was held at Pioneer Baptist Church, across the street from the Meeker Mansion.[1]

Now on the blue sky Pacific morning of Sunday, December 7, the radio of Lt. Humiston’s B-17 was playing Hawaiian tunes on radio station KGMB. The planes were scheduled to stop for refueling at Hickam Air Base, Hawaii.[2]

In Pearl Harbor ahead, Lt. Humiston could make out smoke. He said he guessed that the Navy was welcoming the incoming Flying Fortresses with a 21-gun salute.[3] When a swarm of fighter planes sped toward them, they expected a friendly escort to Hickam.

Then reality hit. Those fighter planes were not American planes, and that smoke in Pearl Harbor was something other than a Navy welcome. As Humiston’s pilot Lt. Robert Richards prepared to land at Hickam, a Japanese Mitsubishi A6M2, known as the “Zero,” buzzed around the B-17 and began pounding it with machine gun fire. There was little that the unarmed American plane could do except abort the landing and fly east, back out over the ocean.

At sea, Richards steered the plane back to Hawaii, this time for a downwind landing at Bellows Field. The Flying Fortress bounced onto the runway at high speed and Richards could not slow it down in time. The B-17 crossed the end of the runway and skidded into a ditch. But the troubles weren’t over on this completely unexpected combat morning. Japanese Zeroes spotted the downed plane in the ditch. One after another, the Zeroes strafed the helpless B-17, riddling it with bullets.[4]

When they finally got out to look for refuge at Bellows, Lt. Humiston and his crew had survived the first American air combat of World War II. Others in the group from Hamilton Field were not so lucky.

At least two other Puyallup men were at Pearl Harbor that day. Harold Brown was a sailor on board the USS Nevada, which was badly damaged by the Japanese bombs. In Schofield Barracks, Niels Dahl awoke to the sound of the planes dive-bombing on Weaver Field. He ran to the roof of the barracks and manned an anti-aircraft gun. “All I could see was my country’s under attack. It’s my job to defend it. Let’s do it,” he told Paul Hackett of the South Hill Historical Society in 2004.

Back home, the midday sun was shining through Ralph Smith’s window on 6th Street Southwest as he looked after his eleven-month old son, who was born on New Year’s Day, 1941. Outside, his wife worked in the yard. Upon graduating from Puyallup High School in 1936, Ralph had served in the Navy aboard the USS Louisville for three years, and now he had a job at Boeing and a little family. As he looked over his blessings, the radio buzzed in the background. An announcer’s voice interrupted Ralph’s concentration. It was a news bulletin. Pearl Harbor had been attacked.

Ralph wasn’t entirely surprised. “We knew we were going to fight the Japanese, we always knew that. It was just such a tense feeling about that.”

Five blocks down 6th Street from the Smiths, Betty Porter was home for the weekend with a friend from the University of Washington band, about to get on the road back to Seattle for a performance. When Betty was informed of the attack, she could not have known the cost that her pioneer family would pay in the war. Her brother Mark would be killed in Germany in 1945.

Many Puyallupans learned of Pearl Harbor as late-morning church services let out. Len Humiston’s family heard the news as they left First Christian Church. “He might be over there,” his sister Gene worried.

Katharine Gronen’s history of Christ Church Episcopal includes an account of December 7 by Bernice Cook: “We had just finished the service on that December Sunday morning and were preparing to take off our choir robes when one of our members who had stayed home that morning burst into the choir room to announce, ‘Pearl Harbor has been bombed!’ Standing there stunned, we overheard four strangers—two of them men in uniform—asking Dr. Sidders if he would marry one of the couples. When he agreed, we decided that we would also wish the young couple Godspeed by witnessing the ceremony and thereupon filed back into the choir stalls. Whether we sang something, I don’t remember, but we added our blessings to the minister’s.”

At Seattle Pacific College, rumors of Pearl Harbor spread through the dormitory hall where former Puyallup High School student body president Marie Jones lived. She joined a little assembly down the hall. “One of the girls was from Hawaii, and I’ll never forget that. It was very hard on her. We gathered around and listened to the radio, and cried, mostly.”

Jim Riley of Puyallup was also in Seattle, working at the Boeing factory. Riley had gone on lunch break. A few workers learned of Pearl Harbor on their radios. A din of voices began to crescendo through the building. “You could hear the volume of people who’d heard on the radio,” said Riley.
Among Japanese-Americans who lived in the Puyallup Valley, news of the attack was especially shocking. Bob Mizukami was competing in his second game at the annual Tacoma Furuya Alley Cats bowling tournament at the Broadway Bowling Alley when the radio was turned up with the bulletin about Pearl Harbor. Tom Takemura was at home listening to the noon news when he heard about the attacks. Through the window, Takemura saw women running in the fields to where their husbands, sons, and brothers were laboring. Takemura picked up the phone to spread the word, but the lines were jammed.[5]

“I remember I ran home around 1:00,” recalled John Watanabe. “I knew Gene Autry was going to be on the radio. They kept breaking in and telling military personnel to report to camp. I said, ‘What the hell is going on?’”

Within a few months, Japanese-Americans in the Puyallup Valley were evacuated as internees to the Puyallup Fairgrounds, and later to Eden, Idaho. “Everything was good until Pearl Harbor
came by,” said Watanabe.

For the Fort Lewis soldiers at Mount Rainier on December 7 training for ski patrols, the news had immediate implications. Don Henderson of Puyallup was skiing on the mountain when the soldiers arrived. First he noticed that they were wearing white capes. Then he noticed that they were making an abrupt retreat, heading out the way they’d come not long before. “All of the sudden, they were leaving, getting off the mountain. I skied down to the bottom, and said to this guy, ‘You guys just got there. Why are you leaving?’”

“Haven’t you heard?” came the reply. “Pearl Harbor was just bombed.”

So it was that Henderson, too, joined the day’s traffic off the mountain, off and away to a world at war. Henderson joined the Navy and was stationed for a time at Pearl Harbor. It would be among his tasks to recover corpses from the sunken USS Oklahoma.

The USS Nevada fared better than the Oklahoma on December 7. As mentioned, Puyallup’s own Harold Brown was serving aboard the Nevada when it was attacked. Brown survived, as did his ship.[6] After temporary repairs, Nevada ambled across the Pacific to the Bremerton Naval Shipyard. There Al Gerstmann of Puyallup went to work on the repairs.

When the guns of the Nevada pounded off the coast of Normandy during the Allied invasion of France, Gerstmann was there to hear them. From the English Channel, they volleyed inland past Omaha Beach to where the Germans were encamped. “My ears are still ringing from that concussion,” he says.

But on Monday, December 8, Gerstmann’s ears were tuned to the voice of President Roosevelt as he addressed the nation at war. The radio echoed through the Puyallup High School commons, where hundreds of students were gathered. “It was very quiet and solemn,” said Jane Bader Trimbley, a junior at the time. “I don’t think any of us realized how dire it was and how big the sacrifice would be.” Jane’s boyfriend, Gordon Barker, would join the Army immediately after graduation. He would be killed in the Battle of the Bulge.

Almost every person sitting silently in the Puyallup High cafeteria that day would serve the country in some way in the years to come. Over fifty of Puyallup’s young men never returned from the war. We owe them our thanks. They were, truly, the “greatest generation.”

Hans Zeiger is a fourth-generation Puyallup resident. If you have memories of Pearl Harbor Day that you would like to share, contact Hans at 253-905-8160 or

[1] Interview with Gene Humiston Cotton, 19 Aug. 2008.
[2] Leatrice R. Arakaki and John R. Kuborn, 7 December 1941: The Air Force Story. (Hickam Air Base, HI: Pacific Air Forces Office of History, 1991), 72-73. See crew lists in appendix, nine per crew.
[3] Owens Archive
[4] Arakaki and Kuborn, 73.
[5] Magden, 113.
[6] Interview with Gilman Welcker, 22 Aug. 2008.