The 70th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor may seem like ancient history to most people. But, here in Petaluma, there are still many for whom the day evokes feelings of deep sadness and loss.
Barbara Shofner was an 18-year-old junior college student in 1941 and on Dec. 7 she was excited to be singing in the choir on D Street. That day, the congregation was celebrating the completion of their new church, an event choir members had spent months preparing for, even sewing new robes for the concert.
“After the service I got in a friend's car and he had the radio on. It was such a big shock. Of course we knew that war was coming but everyone thought of it in Europe,” she said. “To be attacked in the Pacific? Nobody expected that. It really took all the joy out of what was supposed to be a very special day for the congregation."
Shofner remembers that after the attacks that sunk most of the Pacific Fleet, Californians had real fears of the Japanese Navy attacking the coastline.
“My mother had a house at Dillon Beach and they had patrols day and night using dogs. You had to use blackout curtains. It was a very frightening time,” she said.
Those first few days following Pearl Harbor can be compared to the days following 9-11, when people were shocked, angry and motivated to strike back, said Shofner.
“Everyone enlisted. I remember that soon afterwards the classes at junior college were just girls. All the young men disappeared. They all signed up.”
Pat Cameron, 78, was in Sunday school on Dec. 7, 1941. She remembers her father driving back to pick up her and her brother. The adults gave them apples and told them to eat them outside. In the house her parents and uncle spoke in uneasy hushed tones all through the day and night.
“Mothers at that time were all stay-at-home mothers until that happened. I remember two-thirds of the fathers of my friends enlisted right away. Then lots of mothers went off to work to replace the men who left for war,” said Cameron.
She recalls the price of a single egg in the “egg capitol of the world” rising from a penny to $2. Her father, who was 40, quit his carpenter job to work at Mare Island seven days a week.
“After Pearl Harbor, we all had different lives immediately,” she said.
According to estimates, as many as 4,000 Pearl Harbor survivors are still living. Among them is Petaluma resident Tracy Brook’s father, George Larsen, who lives in Bel Marin Keys.
Enlisting in 1939 as a Coast Guard radio operator engaged in intercepting Japanese military code for U.S. Navy Intelligence while stationed at the Diamond Head Radio Station, Larsen remembers clearly the Sunday morning that the Japanese began dropping bombs on Pearl Harbor.
Like a lot of people, he thought the booms and shudders were war games.
“I was rudely awakened by the rattling of all the bedroom windows. My first thought was that it felt like an earthquake…” he wrote in his memoir.
This weekend, the 93-year-old Larsen will travel to Hawaii for the 70th Anniversary Pearl Harbor Day Commemoration at USS Arizona Memorial with his daughter Tracy Brooks and her friend Phyllis Christian. It is Larsen’s fifth visit back to Pearl Harbor since leaving the service in the 1946.
Larsen received the Navy Good Conduct medal, U.S. Coast Guard Good Conduct medal, pre-war Defense medals, the European Defense medal and the WWII Victory medal. After the war, he attended college on the G.I. Bill.
“My father and I are very close and it always has been a good bonding experience. The first time he brought me here I was fourteen-years-old,” Brooks said.
Wearing his Pearl Harbor Survivor jacket, hat and memorial pins, Larsen is a happy traveler - and an instant celebrity everywhere he goes.
“All along the way, people have come up to thank him and shake his hand. It’s really been amazing,” said Christian. “Monday night was truly amazing. To see all these veterans in wheelchairs saluting the list of those who perished on the Arizona. It was very moving.”
For most of his career, Larsen worked as a camera operator for KRON television in San Francisco. When he retired, one of the first things he tackled was writing his Pearl Harbor memoir entitled “On the Edge of War.”
Do you remember Pearl Harbor? Share your story about what impact the day had on you.