75 Years Later, Pearl Harbor Attack Still Stirs Up Strong Emotions

Dec 6, 2016

Seventy-five years ago, Americans woke up to shocking news on the radio. The bombing of Pearl Harbor thrust America into war on two fronts – and for nearly everyone, it meant the world as they knew it would never be the same.

The shrinking number of people who still remember that day have strong memories of the surprise Sunday morning attack on the U.S. Naval base in Hawaii, and how it shaped their lives.

It's a story that hits close to home in my own family. Janet Haman Keck, my mom, was there. She was 7 years old at the time, and says that Sunday morning started out like any other.  

"We got up and we were going to church," she says. "And I was going to Sunday school. I remember that."

Her father, Commander Claude W. Haman, was a Navy pilot on the staff of the U.S.S. Tennessee, which was stationed at the base near Honolulu.

When the bombing started, the family of three was at home together. 

"And there was a terrific amount of noise," recalled my mother. "Big explosions like something had blown up."

Nina and Claude Haman arrive in Honolulu with their daughter Janet for the first time in 1937. Claude Haman was a Navy pilot stationed at Pearl Harbor during the attack in 1941, a day Janet remembers well.
Credit Janet Haman Keck, courtesy

"And there were a couple bombs that fell in town," my mother continues. "And I do remember hearing the whistling and just thinking 'Ahhhh.' [I felt] kind of panicky, mainly because I saw my mother panicky and the adults around me panicky."

"And that whistling was terrible," she adds. "It was worse than the booms."

By 8 a.m., hundreds of Japanese fighter planes were dropping bombs in an attack that would last about two hours.

My mom says they put the radio on, and she remembers the announcer almost stammering as he delivered news of the attack, followed by him telling military personnel to report to their base.

At that point, my mom said, her father – still dressed in his best white linen suit – left the house and hurriedly drove to the base.

It would be almost two weeks before they heard from him again.

Commander Claude W. Haman was a Navy pilot. He's photographed standing under his plane in this 1942 photo.
Credit Janet Haman Keck, courtesy

While my grandfather survived the attack, more than 2,400 military personnel and civilians did not. My mother and millions of others listened anxiously the next day as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared war.

"We all got together in one pretty big room and we had a radio and I remember most of the other wives came – the men were gone by that time – into our room when Roosevelt gave his speech," she recalls.

My mom stops and turns her head away, surprised by the sudden emotion the memories bring back.

"I'm going to have to take a break a minute," she apologizes, as she reaches for a tissue.

Rutland resident Laicita Cook was 18 and living in Hartford, Conn. when she heard Roosevelt's now-famous speech.  

She said the day before, she'd been on a church group outing when their bus driver broke the news about Pearl Harbor.

"Usually we do a lot of chattering and laughing and talking, and nobody said a word. It was like getting kicked in the gut. Pearl Harbor!" Cook says, shaking her head.

"We were so angry. From then on, our world was going to be different. Half the kids were talking about whether they were joining the Navy or the Air Corps — they were that gung-ho to get into this battle."

Rutland resident Laicita Cook in uniform during World War II. Cook served in the South Pacific, in the Women's Army Corps in New Guinea.
Credit Laicita Cook, courtesy

Cook was no different. She enlisted in the Women's Army Corps when she turned 20 and served in the South Pacific in New Guinea. 

"We were mostly secretaries," Cook says. "Every outfit has to have a headquarters and every headquarters has lots of paperwork."

Cook showed me several photos of herself in uniform. In one, she's holding a rifle. She was on a rifle team in high school, she explains, and was an excellent shot.

"But we didn't have guns [in the war]," she says, obviously disappointed. "I guess I thought we were going to have guns. I'd love to be in the Army now."

"Gee, what a difference," Cook adds.

Donald Shedd of Wallingford was 19 when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Even before the bombing, the looming war had affected his family.

Shedd's father had sold their farm in Center Rutland to take a job with a defense contractor in Connecticut. That's where Shedd, his two brothers and two sisters were living when they heard about Pearl Harbor.

"As soon as we knew what was going on over there, us three boys were deciding what to do," Shedd says. "Everybody was joining, and we had to wait till Paul was 18 so he could join us. So it was February when we finally joined the Marines."

All three Shedd boys ended up in the South Pacific, and all three were wounded in action – Bob was hurt in New Britain, Paul during the battle of Guadalcanal and Donald on Peleliu. But all three made it home.

Laicita Cook had to fight off dengue fever, but she too was able to return home after the war.

Her beloved older brother, Kenneth Gregg, was not so lucky. He was an Army Air Corps lieutenant and just 21 years old when he was killed in a plane crash in 1943.
 

Laicita Cook poses with a photo of her older brother Kenneth Gregg, an Army Air Corps lieutenant who was just 21 years old when he was killed in a plane crash in 1943.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR

Dec. 7, 1941 is a day she'll never forget, but Cook prefers to remember Aug. 15, 1945 – the day when the war in Japan finally ended.

"I can hardly describe the feeling," Cook says. "Just the opposite of Pearl Harbor. This great giant thing had been lifted and no more guys were going to kill and be killed in Japan."

"And they gave us the day off," she laughs. "We're not working today!"

She picks up a photo of her brother in his pilot uniform.  His face looks impossibly young.  Even after all these years, she says she still thinks about him and misses him.

My grandfather was also killed in 1943, rescuing his men from a fire in their military quarters. He received the Naval and Marine Corps medal for his heroism. My mom has it hanging in her bedroom.