Tag Archives: pearl harbor

Battle:LA 02.24.42

Have you seen the billboards around town that read “Battle:LA 03.11.11”?

They are there to promote an upcoming science fiction action film called Battle: Los Angeles, which stars Aaron Eckhart as a Marine battling to save us from them, with “us” being the Earth, and “them,” a bunch of invading aliens from outer space.

What most people don’t realize, there actually was a Battle of Los Angeles during the early days of World War II.

While it turned out to be a “bogus battle,” officially attributed to a bad case of war nerves, it brought about the twin tragedies of civilian deaths and the internment of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast.

The “battle” actually began the night before on the evening of February 23, 1942, when a Japanese submarine shelled an oil producing plant twelve miles north of Santa Barbara.

The particulars of the attack sound like the start of a bad WWII-era joke: Did you hear the one about the Japanese submarine commander who sat on a cactus and started the Battle of Los Angeles?

Let me explain.

Before the war a Japanese tanker commander stopped to fill up his ship at the Ellwood Oil Field near Goleta, California. While he was ashore he tripped and fell on a cactus which resulted in the painful extraction of quills from his rump, accompanied by a chorus of ribald laughter from the oil workers.

A short time later, the same man found himself in command of a Japanese submarine that was patrolling the waters off California after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. On the night of February 23, the submarine surfaced near the oil field and the commander, in an obvious act of revenge over his previous harsh treatment, ordered his gunners to fire.

The attack was the first direct assault by a foreign enemy on the American mainland since the War of 1812. It caused minimal damage, but frazzled nerves up and down the coast.

The following night, air raid sirens sounded all around Los Angeles, and the skies over the city were lit up by anti-aircraft fire. The targets were thought to be enemy aircraft, but officially the government said the belligerents were stray weather balloons. (Isn’t that what they always say?)

The bogus battle claimed six civilian lives – three from friendly fire, and another three from heart attacks. It also helped bring about the governmental policy of placing Japanese-Americans into internment camps, which began just days later.

Some feel there was a third great tragedy of the battle – that unfortunate Steven Spielberg film 1941, which was based on the story.

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Challenger Memories

Twenty-five years ago today, I was standing at the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor, having landed in Hawaii a couple of hours earlier after an overnight flight from Australia.

I was too groggy to take in a lot of the details of the Japanese surprise attack given by the park ranger who was leading our tour. Instead, I found myself fixated on a spreading rainbow-hued oil slick in the water caused by seepage from the wreckage that had finally reached the surface after 45 years of entombment.

While half-listening to the ranger’s spiel, I heard him refer to “recent horrible events,” which I found confusing, since there was nothing recent about the Japanese attack. I also caught something about a “tragedy” that had taken place. I remember thinking, “Sure it was a tragedy, but we won the war.”

My gaze was stolen away from the spreading oil when he then said, “In case some of you haven’t heard, the space shuttle exploded this morning just after liftoff.”

There are those moment that we will all experience during a lifetime that defy the laws of physics and are not subject to the equations of space-time; those moments that aren’t a part of the past, but always right next to us, just out of reach. This was one of them.

I don’t remember many details of the rest of my stay in Honolulu, except that I spent more time in the hotel sopping up every detail of the explosion than I did being UV-foolish at Waikiki.

What’s funny is that until reading about the Challenger anniversary this morning, I had completely forgotten about the second shuttle explosion that happened only eight years ago this week, when Columbia broke up over Texas, killing all seven people on board.

How is it possible that I can vividly remember something 25 years ago, and to have seemingly been in a coma in 2003 that kept me from remembering Columbia?

I asked my wife Kimi about this and learned that she vividly remembers Challenger and its crew member Christa McAuliffe, but also has no recollection of the Columbia disaster.

So it isn’t just me.

The contrast between these two disasters is a dramatic example of the American media’s true power, which is to create our shared experiences by deciding what is truly important for us to remember.

This can even be seen in the reporting of the Challenger disaster. Everyone remembers astronaut-teacher Christa McAuliffe, who died 73 seconds into her first shuttle mission, along with the six other members of her crew. What is forgotten by nearly everyone is that there was a second woman on board that flight named Judith Resnick, a 36-year-old engineer who was recruited into NASA by Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols. Resnick was the first Jewish woman ever to go into space.

There were also five men on board that day: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis, and Ellison Onizuka.

Hawaiian-born Onizuka was buried in Honolulu. I was able to visit his grave on my next visit to Hawaii a couple of years after the disaster. This brought my memories of the Challenger disaster full-circle, since it is located only a few miles from Pearl Harbor.


Five Boys From Royalton

Uncle Bruce, circa 1943.

My dad, Woodrow Wilson Stephens, and two of his younger brothers, Bruce and Sam, all served in World War II. They were three poor Kentucky boys from a tiny backwater town called Royalton tucked away in an Appalachian holler. The Stephens boys had neighbors named Whitt who had two sons named Byron and Forrest who also went off to the war. These five boys represented a large proportion of the eligible bachelors of Royalton at the time.

Of the five Royalton boys who went off to battle, only Bruce, my favorite uncle, is still with us. Some time ago he sent me a family genealogy that included a nine-page autobiography he wrote a few years ago as he approached his eightieth birthday. To honor my father, my uncles Bruce and Sam, and the two Whitt brothers on this, the anniversary of the day that forever changed the lives of the “greatest generation,” I would like to reproduce a portion of it here:

I will always remember where I was on December 7, 1941. It was a Sunday and as usual, there was little to do for entertainment. Mostly we just loafed, but this day a couple of my buddies and I were playing cards and listening to one of the few battery radios in Royalton. We were at Ashland “Goose Eye” McFarland’s at a shanty-like garage he used for a home on Willie Shepherd’s farm at a place on Licking River called the Narrows. We could only get two or three stations: KDKA in Pittsburgh, WLW in Cincinnati, and WHAS in Louisville. Over whichever station we had on, the announcement of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came over the air repeatedly, which put an end to our card game. Young men in the area rushed to enlist, but at seventeen, I was not old enough.

My brother Woodrow and our neighbor, Bal Whitt’s son Byron, were already in the navy. My brother had only recently been shipped out of Pearl Harbor and thus escaped the attack, but Byron Whitt was serving as a gunner’s mate on the USS Arizona and was killed and went down with the ship. Years after the war ended, my wife and I visited the USS Arizona memorial where Byron Whitt’s name heads the last column of those killed.

In January of 1943, Uncle Bruce was finally old enough to enlist. He continues with his own wartime experiences where he served in the navy on a hydrographic survey ship at Iwo Jima:

The first battle we engaged in was Iwo Jima. We operated close in to the beach and had a ringside view of the awful action occurring before us, but surprisingly our ship was never struck by enemy fire. We were several times endangered by the falling empty cartridges from our own planes strafing enemy positions on shore.

I had occasion to accidentally come in contact with Byron Whitt’s younger brother Forrest, a marine, as our two ships almost touched each other on our way to Iwo Jima, which many say was the bloodiest battle of the war. We spoke to each other briefly but I never saw him again. He was killed in action on Iwo Jima. Because his brother Byron was entombed on the Arizona, his father and mother elected not to have Forrest returned to the United States and he was buried on Iwo Jima. Both are where they fell fighting for their country. Our neighbors, Bal and Josie Whitt, lost two sons. My two brothers, Woodrow and Sam and I all survived without a scratch. Seems unfair, but sometimes that’s the way it is.

Thanks Bruce, and Sam, and Byron, and Forrest.

And thanks to you, Dad. … I miss you.