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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Pearl Harbor: 70 Years Later

Seventy years ago on this date, Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Seventy years ago on this date, my grandfather, Roland Arthur Zerbel, was in the navy on a ship out in the Pacific Ocean. He was about twenty-one or twenty-two years old.

Twenty years ago on this date, I was eleven years old and it was the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My mother said that I should call my grandpa and ask him about it because he was there. So, not knowing what I was getting into and wishing to God now that I had paid a bit more attention then, I called my grandpa and asked him about Pearl Harbor.

For those of you that are not familiar with WWII history from the US standpoint, Pearl Harbor is located on the southern coast of island of O'ahu in the state of Hawai'i. It is the best place to anchor huge battleships in not only the Hawai'ian Islands, but the whole of the Pacific Ocean. And it was ours. Granted, Hawai'i was still just a US Territory at the time, but it had an US Air Force base and, obviously, naval ships. It is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the city of Honolulu, now the capital of Hawai'i. Pearl Harbor is the reason the US got involved in WWII and we were fighting against the Japanese. The whole deal about the US troops liberating concentration camps in Europe and storming the beach at Normandy, France were secondary to the Japanese. In fact, the US Government had no idea about the concentration camps until they ran into them while storming across Europe and wondered, "WTF is this?!"

I could get into the logistics for why the Japanese felt it necessary to bomb the hell out of us at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 but let's just say our sanctions against Japan caused it and we pretty much deserved it. You cannot choke someone and not expect them to fight back.

But, back to twenty years ago and an eleven year old me asking my grandfather, then in his early 70s, about his experience of Pearl Harbor. My grandfather was in the navy and had been stationed at Pearl Harbor in December 1941. I wish I had paid more attention to my grandfather's story but what I remember him clearly telling me this: his ship left Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1941 because they realized the planes on the radar were coming from the wrong direction to be the supply ships that were supposed to be coming from California. They tried to warn the other ships in the area, telling them to look at the radar: there was no way that planes flying in from the west could be the planes from California because California is not to the west of Hawai'i.

His ship was one day out of Pearl Harbor when the Japanese bombed it on December 7, 1941. He survived because of that.

Whether his ship left under orders or without orders, I do not know. Whether any other ship listened and left with them, I do not know.

My grandfather died in August 2002. He was in his early 80s. We never spoke of Pearl Harbor again after the discussion we had in 1991. Now that I've been doing my family research, I wish I had asked him more about Pearl Harbor and his time in the navy. I hope to ask my step-grandmother more about it, she knew him much better than I ever did.

And, as a side note, she was only eleven or so when the bombing of Pearl Harbor occurred...about the same age I was when I asked him about it.


  1. Such interesting 411.
    I need to ask my grandfather about his experience in the army about WWII. My other grandfather died from cancer when I was in 2nd grade so I know nothing about his history in the navy.

  2. In doing lots of reading about WW2, it is insinuated that the US government did know about the concentration camps, but obviously the everyday soldier on the ground did not. My Pepe was in WW2 and he has an English son, although we have had no contact with him since my mom was a child...