Charles Kennedy sat in the living room of his Garner condominium Monday with nowhere to go.
The World War II veteran was stationed at Pearl Harbor exactly 74 years earlier when Japanese planes attacked the U.S. Naval fleet and the Army air base at nearby Hickam Field on Dec. 7, 1941. But on Dec. 7, 2015, he had no formal memorial to attend.
Instead, the 94-year-old New York native spent time looking at photographs on his computer and recalling some of his experiences as a member of the U.S. Army Air Corps.
Kennedy was a 20-year-old airplane mechanic asleep in his barracks at Hickam Field when bombs started exploding. He looked out the second-floor window of his barracks and saw smoke rising from Pearl Harbor.
About the time he looked out the window, he saw Japanese war planes flying just over his building at tree level.
One of the planes dropped a bomb in the roadway between Kennedy’s barracks and a fire station half a block away. The blast destroyed the fire station and Kennedy ran out of the building to seek safer shelter. He was thinking quickly enough, though, to grab his camera. And, he recorded his experiences in a diary he kept while he was in the Army.
“We went to the transformer hut for shelter, but when I tried to get in there, it was so full of people you couldn’t fit another man in there,” Kennedy said Monday. “So we just stayed on the outside of the building and kept our eyes on the sky and made sure to stay on the leeward side of the building when we saw planes coming in.
Kennedy said the Japanese war planes came in bunches, with wave after wave separated by lulls about 15 minutes long.
At one point, Kennedy tried to reach the airplane hangar where he worked. Damage to his hangar was relatively minimal, Kennedy said, but the hanger next door was completely destroyed.
“We worked mostly on B-18s. Some of them were flawed. They were junk. We also worked on the new B-17s,” Kennedy recalled.
As he was looking around the hanger, he found a spent anti-aircraft shell on the ground. He got a friend to take his picture with it.
Kennedy said the attack on Pearl Harbor and Hickam Air Base last just about one hour, but it left soldiers and sailors alike uncertain about what might be coming next.
“We heard all kinds of rumors about landing parties coming ashore and other things like that,” Kennedy said. “But, honestly, we were mostly just scared. I was barely 20 and I just didn’t know what to think.”
His diary reflects the general confusion. “It’s a terrible helpless feeling to be lying behind or under some flimsy shelter and bomb splinters or machine gun bullets and debris are flying around like hell,” he wrote on Dec. 7.
Later in the day, he returned to his barracks to find windows blown out all across the three-story building. Part of the roof had also been blown away. The 3,200 men who slept in those barracks were moved to other places to sleep, including the floor of a warehouse. The soldiers were allowed back into the barracks for a short time to retrieve personal belongings. The photograph Kennedy took shows charred beds and windows blown out and venetian blinds hanging, twisted from the window sills.
Overnight, Kennedy was assigned machine gun duty, which he served until dawn on Dec. 8. “It’s rainy and cold; mosquitos are terrible. Lawson and Kaufmann are safe and car is OK,” Kennedy wrote in his diary.
The days following the attack were busy ones for Kennedy and the rest of his Army co-workers. They cleaned up the damage from the attack and worked to repair airplanes that had not been fully destroyed in the attack. He didn’t go to Pearl Harbor to see the damage wreaked on the Navy ships.
“Hickam was an Army base. Pearl was a Navy base. The two were separated by a fence and you didn’t go on the other side. The two groups never talked to each other,” Kennedy said. But he said, after the attack, someone built a gate in the fence to allow easier passage from one base to the other.
‘I was occupied’
Kennedy’s diary also reflects some of the nationalistic pride Americans felt in the wake of the attack. “Under Sgt. Berry, we dug a pit and embankment for the gun. Everyone really worked with a will. It’s a great relief after all this to see so many familiar faces and to know that at least some survived.”
It took 12 days before Kennedy could get word to his parents back in New York that he was safe. On Dec. 20, he received a telegram from them asking if he was OK. His response was short. “No blood. No bones. I’m OK.” He said in the days after the attack he hadn’t really thought about getting word back to his parents about the attack. “I was occupied,” he said matter-of-factly.
Kennedy had been stationed at Hickam Air Base for 18 months when the attack happened. He remained for six more months before shipping out to his next assignment at Fort McDowell in California. Kennedy remained in the Army until October, 1945, two months after the Japanese surrendered to Allied forces, ending World War II. According to his own calculations, he served five years, nine months and 20 days in the Army.
After he left the service, he worked briefly for Piper Aircraft before embarking on a long career with IBM. He’s had the chance, though, to return to Pearl Harbor a few times since he left.
He attended a reunion at Pearl Harbor in 1955 and returned for the 50th anniversary celebration in 1991. He made his way back to Pearl Harbor again in 2010.
He had hoped to go again this year, but doctors advised him against taking the arduous flight.
“Maybe next year,” he said.