True Stories of Pearl Harbor Better Than the Movies

The Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library contains first-person accounts of the Japanese attack that pushed the United States into World War II.

USS Arizona Memorial

USS Arizona Memorial

“December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

In a speech to Congress that has gone down in history as much as its impetus, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt correctly predicted how future generations of Americans would remember the attack that plunged the nation into World War II 74 years ago.

Decades later, pop culture has given society books and movies too numerous to count, telling overdramatized stories of those who fought and died at the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor that day. Something in the human psyche draws people back time and again to tales of that surprise attack. But as dramatic as they are, it’s hard to beat the real stories that can be found in the Texas Tech University Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library.

Ruth recalls Pearl Harbor

Nearly a year after the attack, a woman named Ruth wrote a letter to her friend Betsy describing it:

“Nov 16-42

“Dear Betsy,

“We were still in bed . . . when the first bomb fell on Hickam Field, but I assure you we were on our feet in nothing flat as it couldn’t be mistaken for practice bombing which was heard every day. (My husband) was on Gen. Short’s Staff at Ft. Shafter about five miles away and we were simply quartered at Hickam, not stationed there as he had to take the car and run the gauntlet down the road next to the flying field and on to his office leaving Linda (her daughter), the Japanese maid (Tokie) and me alone in the house which was just a stone’s throw from the Consolidated Mess which collapsed from bombs.

Japanese Zero

Japanese Zero

“For about an hour my blood was frozen in my veins and my tongue was so thick I could hardly speak, but believe me what little I remembered of my (faith) helped me to relax after a time. Linda had some new story books as I managed to read them to her, how, I’ll [never] know, but it kept her from being too frightened. The house was shaking so hard it seemed every minute it would cave in. The lighting fixtures fell out of the ceiling-and it just seemed that all hell had let loose. One plane swooped down so low in my patio that I could see the flyer’s face. There were several lulls which helped us pull ourselves together, but in just no time it all started again until I just thought I would lose my mind completely.

“I had several calls from Shafter telling me to get out of the quarters if possible. You can’t imagine my relief when I realized (my husband) had arrived safely. There wasn’t even a scratch on the car and he was right in the thick of the strafing. For about three hours (probably an exaggeration; the attack started at 7:48 AM; stopped at 9:45 AM) it was impossible to leave the house as the shrapnel was flying and the air raining machine gun bullets.

“I started back to my bedroom several times to get out of my night gown and robe, but each time I got part way down the hall and turned back. It was a God’s blessing I did as my bedroom was simply riddled with bullet holes. I don’t believe they were aimed at the quarters but at the men in the street who were fleeing from the mess halls and trying to find shelter. The shingles were off the front of my roof also.

Who

Jim Nabors pauses before singing the National Anthem during a memorial service for 69th anniversary of the attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu. (2010)

“. . . there were about forty (men) wedged in my garage right off the lanai where we were. They were very much surprised to learn there were people in the house when I finally opened the door to make our escape. They wouldn’t let me leave, but made me wait until there was a lull of about fifteen minutes and then about fifteen of them ran with us for the distance of about a block to the Mollison’s where I was to get my transportation off the post. Tokie and I literally swung Linda thru the air and just before we got to our destination the planes came over again and the bullets were flying. We stood at the front door and saw a Jap plane brought down.

“Betty’s house was full of (people) in all stages of hysteria and confusion. She and I went out to the kitchen and packed up bread and sandwich meat as we didn’t know but what we might have to take to the hills and we had had no breakfast. Just as we finished and left the room a tracer bullet went through the kitchen.

“During the next lull Doug, Betty’s oldest boy and two of the young girls . . . drove me back to my quarters to dress. The girls took care of dressing Linda and packing a few clothes for her and I got my things together and Tokie her own things.

“We had two cars which we loaded and then ran hell bent for election off the post and to the Oahu Country Club where we had been instructed to go . . . .

“There we had luncheon, watching a couple of boats go down in the harbor and wondering if our husbands were still alive. . . .

“Fondly, Ruth”

Medal of Honor recipients

Also in the library’s collection is a listing of the people who applied for a Congressional Pearl Harbor Commemorative Medal on the 50th anniversary of the attack in 1991. This list is specific to the Lubbock and South Plains region and includes only those who are military veterans or certain contract civilians who served in Hawaii during the 1941 on Pearl Harbor.

“The interesting thing about the list is it even gives a brief summary of what these veterans were doing at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941,” said Tai Kreidler, department head of the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library.

It reads:

USS Arizona Memorial

USS Arizona Memorial

“Richard Eugene Adams, from Lubbock, Texas. Served with the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor. He had just come off mid-watch and was going to get a newspaper immediately before the attack. During the attack, he and several other men were fueling ships.

“Walter Banisky, from Odessa, Texas. Served with the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor. He and a friend were going to breakfast when they saw planes maneuvering in the distance. They thought the planes were American until they saw the red circle insignia indicating they were Japanese. He and his friend ran like crazy to a hangar which was about a mile away.

“Peter W. Bolash. Served with the U.S. Army at Pearl Harbor. Later retired from the U.S. Air Force after 25 years of military service. Mr. Bolash is deceased and his medal will be accepted by his widow, Martha L. Bolash of Lubbock, Texas. Mr. Bolash was in the chow hall when he heard planes coming in, and he and a group ran out the door to see what was happening. The planes began shooting at them. They dropped to the ground. One of the men was injured and later died. In approximately an hour, Mr. Bolash was issued a .45 caliber pistol with two rounds of ammunition. With that, he reported to his field position.

“Augustine Bruno, of Odessa, Texas. Served with the U.S. Army at Pearl Harbor. He was on guard duty at Soldiers Beach. As the attack occurred, he remembers wondering what all the excitement was about.

“Richard Clyde Burleson, from Plainview, Texas. Served with the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor. He was at the eyes, nose and throat ward of the Navy hospital doing dishes. There were men blasting to build a new dry dock and he remembers thinking that it was unusual for them to be blasting on a Sunday morning. A friend went outside and saw planes which he recognized as being Japanese because of their insignia. One of the planes crashed and Mr. Burleson helped put out the fire it ignited in the corner of the laboratory with a hose. He recalls being ‘scared to death.’

USS Arizona Memorial

USS Arizona survivors attend the annual Pearl Harbor's ceremony held on December 7.

“William W. Fomby, from Odessa, Texas. Served with the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor. He was aboard the U.S.S. Oklahoma when it was hit, but he swam to shore.

“Howard Phillip Fyke, of Odessa, Texas. Served with the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor. He was aboard the U.S.S. Nevada and was writing a Christmas letter home and planning to send some photos along when the attack began.

“Buford Clarence Hartwick, from Friona, Texas. Served with the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor. He was asleep aboard the U.S.S. Pennsylvania when the attack began.

“Arthur Wesley James, of Lubbock, Texas. Served with the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor as a crew member of the U.S.S. Medusa, ‘the Navy’s number one repairship.’ He was in his bunk when he heard: ‘Man your battle stations! This is war!’ He saw the U.S.S. Utah rolling over and men walking on her hull and he saw some men swimming to shore.

“Elvy W. Lewis, from Lubbock, Texas. Served with the U.S. Army’s 11th field artillery, assigned to the 24th Division at Schofield Barracks during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“James Moore Mason, from Slaton, Texas. Served with the U.S. Navy as a Hospitalman 2nd Class at Pearl Harbor. Retired from the U.S. Navy as a medical service warrant officer after 20 years of service with the Navy Hospital Corps. He was returning to the hospital from shore leave. He first thought the attack was a practice drill until he saw a wounded serviceman.

USS Arizona Memorial

USS Arizona Memorial

“Douglas Reid Spradling, of Plainview, Texas. Served with the U.S. Navy aboard the U.S.S. Tennessee on December 7, 1941. He was assigned to the 5th Division. His ship was inboard of the West Virginia which lost 1,000 men. Initially, he thought it was a drill. He was amazed by the fire and estimates that 90 percent of the casualties were lost due to the fire.

“Garland Swann, of Plains, Texas. Served with the U.S. Marine Corps at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He was stationed at Ewa Field, a Marine air base.

“Colvin Westbrook, of Lubbock, Texas. Served with the U.S. Navy. He was aboard a tanker situated between the U.S.S. California and the U.S.S. Oklahoma during the attack. However, the tanker managed to escape Pearl Harbor without a scratch. He retired as a chief warrant officer after 30 years’ service.”

Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library

The Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library houses a variety of events and rotating exhibits. Its gallery and reading room are open year-round, from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday in the summer; and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, and 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday during the fall and spring semesters. Holiday hours can change, so call ahead to the reference desk at (806) 742-9070 with any questions.

To see more of the Pearl Harbor collection, visit the library at 15th Street and Detroit Avenue on the Texas Tech campus or contact reference librarian Randy Vance at (806) 834-4525 or randy.vance@ttu.edu


Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library

The Board of Regents of then-Texas Technological College formally established the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library in 1955, but the librarys collection dates to the early years of Texas Tech.

The largest rare-book library in 130,000 square miles, the major historical repository and research center spans a 78,000-square-foot facility with climate-controlled stacks and pulls tens of thousands of individual items to answer research requests from all over the world. In total, the SWC/SCL houses 22 million historical items, including the master Coronelli globe, constructed in 1688 and once owned by William Randolph Hearst.

The SWC/SCL offers:

  • more than 1,600 manuscript collections
  • 80,000 volumes related to the region
  • 4,000 oral history interviews
  • nearly one million accessible photographs
  • 1,500 newspaper and periodical titles
  • 8,000 reels of microfilm and videotape
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