The first wave of Japanese carrier-based aircraft began to cross Oahu’s western coast at approximately 0740. They began their attack on U.S. Pacific Fleet ships and installations at Pearl Harbor several minutes before 0800, shattering what had been a quiet Sunday morning.
When the attack began, Rudy went from the power plant’s ground floor up to the turbine floor so he could look beyond the Helena. As he related in The Times: “I went to one of the windows and looked across the seaplane hangars at Ford Island about 2,000 feet from our building. At first I could see nothing but smoke. I called one of our men to the window as a plane came swooping down over the hangars dropping its bombs.”
Rudy’s initial thought was that a large fire was raging out of control and that aircraft were being used to drop fire-retardant chemicals to suppress the flames, which had been practiced at the base during a recent exercise. “The fire must be too hot, and they’re dropping chemicals from the air,” he told a man next to him. Rudy alerted another watch engineer to monitor pressure in the fire mains controlled by the plant’s large saltwater pumps. He quickly realized, however, that what was transpiring was something entirely different from an exercise—and far worse.
Japanese aircraft soon began attacks on the Helena and Oglala. “I suddenly realized I was looking at a plane coming directly toward the power plant,” Rudy recalled. “A bright shining object dropped sleekly from the fast-moving plane into the water, and I knew it was a pickle [torpedo]. The plane banked sharply, and two meatballs [circular red Japanese insignias] stood out on the wings. There was a tremendous explosion, and the bow of the Helena raised out of the water. A naval officer in his white dress uniform was running along the dock trying to reach his ship, and when the explosion came he went down in a cloud of smoke and a flood of salt water.”
Acting without an order to do so (which was contrary to standing orders to await a command), Rudy pulled the cord on the power plant’s steam whistle to signal an air-raid alarm. As he noted during a radio interview on the Mutual Network, broadcast on 3 April 1942: “I don’t know how long all that took—just a few moments, I guess—but the next thing I knew I was leaning on that old whistle cord.”
The first wave of attacking aircraft concentrated on the largest Navy warships, especially the battlewagons on Battleship Row off Ford Island’s southeastern coast. Some minutes after 0800, a fourth bomb struck the USS Arizona (BB-39) forward of turret two near the ship’s bow.
Within approximately 90 minutes, the last Japanese aircraft in the second wave of the attack had completed their deadly missions and were winging their way west to Japan’s Combined Fleet and their waiting aircraft carriers far to seaward.
Back in Central Oahu
At the same time Rudy was experiencing the horrific attack at Pearl Harbor, his family also came face-to-face with the war at their home in Wahiawa when Japanese aircraft attacked Wheeler Army Airfield. Uncle Rudy and Aunt Viola’s house was roughly three miles from the airfield in central Oahu. They normally would have attended church that day, but with only one family automobile, this became impossible when Rudy was assigned to work Sunday morning.
As Rudy’s daughter, Carol, recalled, “December 7th is vivid in my mind. Grammie [Rudy’s mother, Irma] and I were outside hanging up washing on the clothesline. We heard whizzing noises. Our neighbor came over on the run, told us Pearl Harbor was being bombed, and said to get inside our house. We could see smoke rising in the distance from Pearl Harbor.” The neighbor brought a radio along so they all could listen to the first news broadcasts of the attack.
Viola was inside the house at the time. She heard sounds of firing and a siren, but nothing out of the ordinary. “I did not think it strange since we often heard it because we were so close to a rifle range. I thought it was practice, but there was a definitely different sound—a ‘zing’ as the firing went on,” she said years later.
After her mother-in-law and daughter ran into the house, Viola was shocked by their description of the attack and reports that ships were being sunk at Pearl Harbor. “I was dumbfounded that such a thing could happen,” she said. “Looking out the window I could see smoke billowing up from Pearl Harbor. I knew that what she had told me was true, but still felt that it couldn’t be.”
Carol remembers how her mother filled all of their home’s sinks and the lone bathtub with fresh water. “My mother also took the mattresses off our beds and carried them to the safest room in our house—the narrow hallway in the center of our home. This was our ‘safe room.’” During the hours that followed, the radio was their link to the day’s unfolding tragedy.
They were, of course, concerned about Rudy’s safety, but also that of his younger brother, Gordon, and sister, Jean. Gordon was a chief machinist’s mate assigned to a ship stationed at the Navy’s submarine base and naval station at Coco Solo, Panama. Jean was a student nurse on Oahu at the time but was not injured in the attack and helped care for the wounded at the Army’s Schofield Barracks in Honolulu.
Rudy Returns Home
Radio news broadcasts reported that employees at Pearl Harbor would be spending the night on the base. However, later that day, Rudy was authorized to return home. “I was surprised when my husband came out,” Viola said. “I rushed out to greet him when I saw the car. Daddy was shaking. I could see bullet holes in the fender. He was dumbfounded the Japanese could penetrate our defenses. Having served in the Navy, he had implicit faith in the ability of our men to protect us. He had a great deal of confidence in the Navy, so it took a while before he realized what was happening.”
Before the fires were extinguished at Pearl Harbor, Wheeler Field, and other facilities attacked by the Japanese, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin newspaper published a special “1st Extra” edition on Sunday with its initial reporting on the attack. The banner headline, “War! Oahu Bombed By Japanese Planes,” consumed the entire upper half of the front page. The newspaper’s preliminary reports on the numbers of dead and wounded—6 known dead and 21 injured being treated at an emergency hospital—did not begin to tell the extent of the death and destruction that had ensued. “Seeing those great warships going down and the loss of their men really hurt,” Rudy recalled later.
Life was never the same in Hawaii during the war years following the attack. Carol’s elementary school, located near Wheeler Army Airfield, had been strafed by attacking planes and was closed until it could be repaired. Military personnel with families who were living in housing at Pearl Harbor had to find other residences on Oahu, because thousands of new civilian workers reported to the Navy Yard in 1942 and 1943, and the Navy provided housing for them. “I remember a friend of my mother’s was in the Navy,” Carol recalled. “He and his family had housing at Pearl Harbor, but they had to leave. They stayed with us.”
Within weeks of the attack, Hawaii’s Territorial Office of Civil Defense published and distributed an Air Raid Precautions Manual as a planning guide for self-protection in the event of another Japanese attack. Black-out directives were issued and enforced by “block wardens.”
“At some point,” Carol continued, “we had to go to the fire station for tetanus shots and other injections, and to be fingerprinted. We were also assigned an air raid shelter—there was the real fear that the Japanese would attack again.” She and other school children were issued gas masks and required to carry them to school in cases slung over their shoulders.
A Wartime Footing
Rudy and other shipyard employees at Pearl Harbor worked around-the-clock after the attack, surging to a 24-hour-a-day operating schedule. The first priority was the recovery of the remains of sailors entombed on sunken or heavily damaged ships. Most of the ships were progressively salvaged and repaired. All but three were raised and repaired, returned to service, and made important contributions to the ultimate defeat of Axis forces in the Pacific and Atlantic. The battleships Arizona and Oklahoma (BB-37) were too badly damaged to be repaired, and the target ship ex-Utah (BB-31) also was deemed unsuitable for salvage.
“Horribly battered ships with dead men aboard came to the Yard from forward areas for major battle repairs,” the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard’s Command History notes. “Men work long, hard hours with little sleep and little recreation. Battleships came up from the bottom of Pearl Harbor; new warships from the mainland shipyards came in for supplies and ammunition; repair records were broken as the work of keeping the Fleet ‘fit to fight’ went into high gear.”
The repair of the heavily damaged aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5) following the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 was a telling example of the devotion of the shipyard’s workers to the demanding tasks at hand. The carrier had been so heavily damaged in battle that it was initially estimated to require weeks of repair work after she arrived at Pearl Harbor on 27 May. However, mindful of the need to return the ship to the fight for the anticipated Battle of Midway in early June, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the new commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, ordered repairs to be completed in just three days. Thousands of shipyard workers swarmed over the ship and completed the work—on time.
The shipyard’s build-up continued into 1943. “The Navy Yard grew to mammoth proportions both in personnel and in additional work, storage and housing facilities,” the Yard’s Command History documents. “One of the world’s largest drydocks (Drydock No. 4) was started; buildings mushroomed; new docks and berths were constructed; annexes were added to the Administration Building; barracks and temporary housing facilities filled every available piece of land around Pearl Harbor.” By June, the yard reported that employment reached 24,000 workers. The scars from the 7 December attack were largely erased. The shipyard played a critical role in modernizing and repairing Pacific Fleet ships and craft until final victory over the Empire of Japan in September 1945.
Reflecting on the events of 7 December 1941, and the years of war that followed, Viola Peterson later reflected: “It’s a day I’ll never forget. I’m just thankful that he [Rudy] was safe and that Gordon came back.”
Captain Peterson, a naval aviator and public affairs specialist during his Navy career, is a 1968 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and flew more than 500 missions with the Seawolves of HAL-3 during the Vietnam War. For six years, he served as military legislative assistant to U.S. Senator James Webb (D-VA).
The Circular Chart
The precise timing of the attacks by the two waves of Japanese aircraft was recorded on a 24-hour circular chart that was mounted on a recording instrument attached to a structural column in the power plant where Rudy Peterson was on watch. This instrument, a spring-wound clock, used a pen with purple ink to record the boiler feed water temperature. Other charts were used on separate instruments to measure the rate of flow and pressure. Engineering supervisors and watch personnel would use the information to judge the efficiency of boiler operations.
The recording normally covered a 24-hour period during the plant’s operations. On the morning of 7 December 1941, only the recorder measuring water temperature was in operation when the charts were put in place between 0700 to 0730.
On this chart 2400 is noted on the edge of the chart as this runs into another day. The plant was shut down at 0400 on 7 December. The temperature rose from 180 degrees to 270 degrees, then to 215 degrees at 0755, the time that the first wave of bombing started. The chart was not changed at the regular time due to the work and then the bombing. The second wave is noted on the edge of the chart at about 0845. The temperature started to drop when we began to warm up under emergency conditions through 1200 as noted on the edge of the chart showing irregular temperatures through 2400 into 8 December until about 0715 of that day when the chart was removed. I was given permission to file this chart in my file instead of the plant file by the Shop Master, Mr. Frank Hadley.
Years later, at his father’s request, David Peterson donated the original colored chart to the National Park Service’s Visitor Center at the USS Arizona Memorial after Rudy’s death, 8 November 1983, in Anacortes, Washington.