Remembering Pearl Harbor: Dennis Sienkiewicz

— Submitted by UH alumnus Dennis Sienkiewicz (UH Mānoa, BA, 1971)

At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, my mother was 14 years old and was living in Waimānalo, where my grandfather, Sosaku Shirai, was working at the Waimānalo Sugar Mill.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, my mother, Mitsuko Shirai, was at Shriner’s Beach at Waimānalo with some friends. She was supposed to go to church that morning, but instead went with her friends to the beach. They hadn't been there long when they noticed a lot of activity over Bellows Army Airfield. Airplanes were flying over and diving down over the air base and my mother remembers hearing what sounded like firecrackers going off, then she saw puffs of fire on the ground at the air base, heard muffled explosions, then watched lots of black smoke rising into the sky. One of the girls she was with said that it looked like some kind of air drill or army exercise, but everyone was surprised that it seemed so real, like something from the movies. Another girl said it seemed odd that the Army was doing this on a Sunday.

As this was going on, a police car pulled up and a policeman got out to tell everyone to get off the beach at once and to return home quickly. He said that the Japanese were attacking Pearl Harbor, Hickam Field and other places on O‘ahu. Shocked, my mother and her friends quickly gathered up their belongings and started to go back to Waimānalo town.

At the same time that my mother was at the beach, my grandmother, Isako, was at the family home doing laundry. The old home was one street down from Kalaniana‘ole Highway, right next to Waimānalo Elementary and Intermediate School. She was taking clothes to the outside washroom when she heard airplanes flying overhead. This was not unusual as Bellows Airfield was close to the house. She looked up and saw several planes coming in low to the ground and they had red circles for markings, not the American stars she was used to seeing. One of the men in the planes waved at her as he passed by. Then she heard what sounded to her like someone tapping on an empty can...a tac, tac, tac, tac noise and she realized the planes were shooting at something. The shooting was soon followed by several loud ‘booms’ and she felt the ground shaking under her. My grandmother then turned, grabbed my three-year-old uncle who was in the yard, ran into the house and stayed there until all the commotion had died down. Later, my mother and her older brothers had come home and turned on the radio, trying to find out what was going on, then they came to the realization that a war had started, a war with Japan.

The next day, my mother and the rest of the family heard the declaration of war over the radio, then came martial law, curfews and rationing. The worst was the detention of my grandfather, who was sent to an internment camp on Sand Island, because he was a person of some influence in the Waimānalo Japanese community. He was never formally charged with anything, but he was held there at Sand Island for four months, when he was finally released to go back to work at the sugar mill, since sugar production was deemed necessary to the war effort.

There are other stories from the war years, but this is what my mother and grandmother recollected to me about December 7th. My grandma passed away in 1996, but my mother is still alive and remembers those stories from days long since gone.

*Submission has been slightly edited for clarity purposes.

University of Hawai‘i Alumni