Living Through The Pearl Harbor Attack (Last Month)


Our Stearman, otherwise known as the Queen, has been around awhile. An open-cockpit biplane built in 1941, there’s quite a bit of anachronistic hardware on her that I find every once in a while. The latest bits that required urgent replacement were all the old pre-World War II fuel line fittings.

Someone in the past couldn’t tell the difference between these old fittings and the modern style and forced them to fit together. Remarkably, the mismatched fittings didn’t leak even with differing geometries. However, it did result in a bunch of connections involving aluminum and steel, a recipe for disaster in our environment of heat, humidity, salt and sulfur.

Eventually this stuff starts to revert back to the form it was in as it came out of the earth, in other words, rust. Unfortunately, rust is a pretty poor substance to use for fuel lines. I got all the new hardware and tubing together, removed all the fuel, and fabricated new lines. I used all modern fittings with some regret. The old style is obsolete, but its reminiscent of an earlier era. As my buddy Tim said when I told him the Queen still had these old fittings, “How cool is that?” Pretty cool.

After finishing up all the clamping and routing of these lines, I put 10 gallons of fuel in the tank and checked for leaks. I still wanted to fill up the tank and make sure everything was nice and tight before I went flying, so on Saturday morning around 8 a.m., I taxied over to the fuel tanks to fill her up. The fuel farm also has a fuel truck available for remote fueling, and when I got over there, it was apparent that the fuel truck driver had been filling up the truck from the tank and for some reason had simply run off. The grounding cable was still attached to the truck and the fuel hose and nozzle was just lying by the side of the truck. But the fueler was nowhere in sight.

My friend Rick came running out from the nearby hangar and asked me if I’d “gotten the text.” I fly a 1941 airplane, ride a 1972 motorcycle and have a flip phone. So of course the answer was no, I hadn’t gotten the text. He showed me the message that had come over everyone else’s phone with a screeching alarm, “BALLISTIC MISSLE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Whoa. That explained the missing fueler.

Several of us gathered around the picnic table in front of the hangar. We speculated on whether this could be true or not. We heard what sounded like an alarm in the distance, or maybe it was just the whistle of the old sugar cane train that does rides on the weekends. The wind took a shift, dampening the sound, and we agreed that yep, that’s just the train’s whistle, no worries. Another wind shift brought the sound back. Although we found out later that the Civil Defense sirens did not sound, this alarm came from one of the two oil refineries in the state, right next to the airport.

I looked at the Queen, empty of gas, and decided not to fill her up. My husband Harry, safe in Alaska, would have to pay off my credit card bill including a good 35 gallons of gas that I never got to use. Rick knew something about this. A friend of ours recently bought the farm in a helicopter crash and left the world with a goodly amount of credit-card debt. Apparently the credit-card company doesn’t come calling to collect from the surviving spouse, but the debt forgiveness is considered to be income by the IRS and taxes must be paid. I left the Queen empty. So this is what we talked about when we thought we were all going to die in the next 20 minutes.

Tim thought I should take off in the Queen and re-create the movie Tora, Tora, Tora, which dramatized the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. After all, this wouldn’t be the first time that Hawaii was bombed in a manner that started a major war. There are many people here that remember it. Going to church on Sunday morning and seeing planes with a brilliant red ball is a troubling experience. Taking one’s normal outing in the morning to pick opihi (limpets) in Pearl Harbor and finding too much blood in the water to continue is something no one would ever forget. Apparently there are a lot of folks on the mainland questioning why we took this alert seriously. But we either remember or are one generation away from those do who remember the Pearl Harbor attack. It’s pretty close to home.

I suggested that we turn on the radio in someone’s vehicle to see what was going on. Unfortunately, the only thing we heard was from Danielle Tucker, DJ in Hawaii for 25 years, saying “this is not a drill.” We looked at each other blankly. Our position was three miles as the crow flies from Pearl Harbor. Someone decided to try and hide in one of the Army tanks that are on static display at the local museum. Someone else decided to attempt to drive home. Another suggested that unless the blast was larger than your thumb, you’d be OK. Rick mentioned that if you heard the blast you weren’t dead yet. No one’s cellphone could get through to anyone.

I taxied the Queen back to the hangar. She’d been through all of this before and didn’t seem concerned, starting up nice and easy. I grabbed my handheld radio, and tuned to the tower frequency. There was a Cessna in the pattern who had been circling the entire time, tower not allowing him to land during the alert in case the runways were needed I guess. I figured tower would have the latest information. I didn’t want to die just yet.

A few minutes later, tower told the Cessna that they’d been told from Civil Defense that it was a drill and he could land. I started shaking and couldn’t stop for a while.

I drove back to my friend’s hangar and we all looked at each other again somewhat blankly. Rick said now we’d have to go back to just thinking about high blood pressure and heart attacks as a way to die. We all agreed that this was the most f%^$^d up 40 minutes we’d ever been through.

I decided to fly my Cessna, Honey Girl, around for a bit to clear my head. On the way out, I saw my hangar neighbor ground loop his aircraft on the crossing runway. Ground loops are unintentional and possibly catastrophic near crashes that occur during landing in a squirrelly aircraft. He was OK, but the aircraft was toast. Nothing seemed right. I had to take Honey Girl up to a high power setting and lean her out in order to clear the spark plugs and get a smooth running engine.

I went out on the west side of the island until just past Waianae where I saw two humpback whales playing at the surface. Usually they hear my plane and take a dive when I circle them, but these two kept at it, showing their flukes and slapping their fins. Of course it’s ridiculous to attribute any meaning to a couple of humpbacks relieving themselves of barnacles by slamming their flukes on the water, but I decided they were telling me to go out and have a good time, just like they were.

The next day I got to the airport early to fill up the Queen and finally check all those new fuel line fittings. Everything looked tight. I don’t have any lights on the Queen, so I waited till sunrise to take off in this big box kite of an airplane. At sunrise, I was out there doing bumps and circuits telling myself “tall gear, tall gear, tall gear” … blam! Oops, there’s the ground. Thankfully, it was just another normal morning in paradise.