South Lake Tahoe resident recalls attack on Pearl Harbor 75 years later
The first thing 5-year-old Barbara Burns heard on Dec. 7, 1941 was the sound of the planes.
Inside her home on the Hawaiian island of Oahu with her father, mother and 11-year-old brother, Burns was assured that it was “just maneuvers.”
With U.S. Air Force base Hickam Field nearby, it wasn’t unheard of.
“It was Sunday morning. It was warm, and the door was open. My dad was sitting there having coffee, and my mom was in the sitting area,” recalled Burns.
“Not too long after that there was the sound of the bombers coming in — real heavy duty. Pretty soon we heard a lot of bombs dropping. There’d be a concussion from each one. And there was the sound of the bullets, too. ‘Tut-tut-tut-tut-tut.’”
Burns’ father and brother quickly moved to cover the windows as sirens blared. The rest of the day was a blur for the young child.
“I remember feeling excited and frightened. It was scary,” said Burns.
Around 8 a.m., hundreds of Japanese fighter planes attacked the American naval base near Honolulu. In just two hours, the Japanese destroyed 20 naval vessels — including eight large battleships — and more than 300 airplanes. Over 2,000 American soldiers and sailors were killed in the surprise strike, and another 1,000 were wounded.
The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan.
“Yesterday the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked,” said Roosevelt on Dec. 8. “No matter now long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.
“I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.”
Just three days later, Japanese allies Germany and Italy also declared war on the U.S., and Congress again reciprocated.
More than two years into the conflict, America had finally entered World War II.
For young Burns, it was a confusing time. At night they blacked out the windows and used kerosene lamps, and at school they carried around gas masks while playing hopscotch and jumping rope.
“We learned to put those things on fast,” she recalled.
And then there was the rounding up of the Japanese-American residents of the island.
“I feel saddened over the whole thing, but the part that really gets to me is the Japanese themselves. I remember I played with those children — we were all just kids, we didn’t know the difference — they were taking them into [internment] camps,” said Burns.
“I cried and cried and cried.”
The Honouliuli Internment Camp near Pearl Harbor held as many as 4,000 prisoners during World War II, including hundreds of Japanese-Americans.
“This is a pretty interesting psychological part of it, because pretty soon I was saying ‘How could you bomb our island?’ And they’d go, ‘We did not do that!’ Those poor little kids,” said Burns.
“I thought of that years later. But we were kids. It was hard to understand. That’s how war goes. I was sad or I was mad. I didn’t know what to be.”
And now, sitting in her apartment in South Lake Tahoe a few days shy of the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Burns remembers it all so vividly.
Her caretaker, Frederica Ingram, sits by listening, before chiming in quietly, “My parents were in concentration camps by the Japanese in Europe.”
Ingram’s father was Dutch and her mother was Dutch-Indonesian.
“Indonesia was a Dutch colony so the Japanese came to Indonesia, and they put all the Dutch in concentration camps,” said Ingram. “My dad was tortured by the Japanese. They thought he was a Russian spy because he knew five languages.”
The Japanese occupied the then-Dutch East Indies from March 1942 until the end of the war in 1945.
It is a difficult subject for Ingram to discuss.
“In school we were asked to write about our heritage, and I interviewed my mother, but I couldn’t get out more than a rough draft,” she explained.
After the war, the Dutch returned to Holland, and in 1960, Ingram and her family traveled by ship for two weeks from Holland to New York.
It was an emotional realization for Burns and Ingram — this connection rooted in war.
Burns and her family eventually moved to San Francisco to be closers to her father’s family, and that’s where she was on Sept. 2, 1945 when the war ended.
“I was standing on the sidewalk. All these soldiers and fighting men — and some women, too — were marching down the street, and women were running into the streets and grabbing them saying, ‘Thank you, thank you’ or ‘Did you know a private such-and-such?’ They were asking if they knew their sons who had died,” explained Burns.
“When those flags came by, by God I put my hand over my heart and I stood as straight as a ram rod. I stood there, and I didn’t make a move. The respect for that flag. There was so much celebration and happiness.”