Pearl Harbor survivors recall events of Dec. 7, 1941

Pearl Harbor survivor Bob Reese looks for himself in a picture from his military days when he was stationed in San Diego. - Jesse Beals/staff photo
Pearl Harbor survivor Bob Reese looks for himself in a picture from his military days when he was stationed in San Diego.
— image credit: Jesse Beals/staff photo

Shortly before 8 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, Bob Reese was waiting to eat breakfast aboard the USS Honolulu, which was docked alongside the USS St. Louis at the naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

At the same time, Frances Phelps was preparing breakfast for herself and her two young children inside the family’s Pearl Harbor home.

Reese and Phelps, both of Bremerton, are just a couple of the Pearl Harbor survivors who still tell their tales about the bombing of the naval base 67 years ago.

“Man your battle


Reese, now 87, was about 20 years old when Japanese military forces bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. He was stationed aboard the USS Honolulu, which just pulled into the naval base a week earlier.

Reese said he and his shipmates were waiting to eat breakfast, but the bugler did not blare across the loudspeaker as usual that morning.

“Then they came on and said ‘man your battle stations’ and we were all wondering why they were running drills on a Sunday,” Reese said.

Reese ran up to his gun station and relieved the sailor who was currently manning the post. He put his headphones on and looked up to see Japanese planes dropping bombs from the sky.

“As soon as we got up there on the deck we could see the planes with the big red circles on them and we realized what was happening,” he said.

Reese said there was no ammunition for the guns in the gun stations, so he was helpless to fight off the attacking Japanese planes.

“We didn’t have ammunition, there were no firing pins in the guns. They had put all that away,” he said. “We never did get ammunition or anything.”

Reese said he could see “battleships burning and exploding” around the USS Honolulu, but he could not hear a thing. The previous sailor at the gun station forgot to plug in the headphones Reese was wearing, so he could not hear anything.

Although the USS Honolulu was not directly bombed, the cruiser did sustain damage that day. Reese said a Japanese plane dropped a bomb on the dock beside the ship and it blasted a hole in the magazine where the ammunition was stored. It flooded with sea water, which he said is probably why the ammunition did not explode.

“It was amazing they never went off,” Reese said. “That was as close as anything for us with any danger. It made the ship bounce up and down though.”

Reese said the USS Honolulu did not lose any sailors that day and he was in disbelief as to how the Japanese planes even got into the military base.

“I couldn’t imagine how the planes got in there, how we were taken by surprise,” he said.

“We were lucky,”he said.

Reese said he has never returned to Pearl Harbor since the war.

“All ‘H’ broke loose”

Phelps, now 95, was preparing breakfast for herself and her 2-year-old and 5-year-old children when “all ‘H’ broke loose” Dec. 7, 1941.

“I remember I was just getting ready to put a piece of bread in the toaster and all ‘H’ broke loose at about five minutes to 8,” she said.

Phelps said she first thought of her children, who were safe and sound inside the home, located just outside the Navy yard gate across from Hickam Field.

Phelps said Marines rushed to their home and told her to remove the car cover from the family vehicle because “it made it obvious” that someone was inside the house.

“The Marines came right away and our car was outside with a white cover on it and they made us take it off and then a bus came and took us to the Army/Navy Y(MCA) in town,” she said.

Phelps said she and her children stayed at the YMCA overnight, then stayed with a friend in town for two nights before returning to their home.

“The home wasn’t hit. A home in back of ours was hit,” she said.

Phelps’ husband, William, left aboard the heavy cruiser USS Portland, en route to the Philippines, just two days before the Japanese attack. Phelps said she could not get in touch with her husband for a while after the bombing to see if he was OK and let him know she and the children were fine.

“I didn’t know if he was dead or alive and he didn’t know if we were dead or alive,” she said.

William Phelps spent 30 years in the Navy, retiring in 1958 as a lieutenant commander. He died at Naval Hospital Bremerton in 1980 at the age of 69.

“We would have been married 73 years,” Phelps said.

Phelps said she plans to attend tomorrow’s Pearl Harbor remembrance ceremony in Keyport for a couple reasons.

“The Navy played a big part in my life and in respect to my husband,” she said.

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