Skip to main content

South Jordan Journal

Girl’s account of Pearl Harbor attack keeps history alive

Dec 08, 2021 01:29PM ● By Julie Slama

South Jordan resident Virginia Wood Harris looks back at photos and articles about the strike on Pearl Harbor 80 years ago when as she was a girl living on the island of Oahu and stood near the naval dock at the beginning of the bombing. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Seven-year-old Virginia was skipping alongside her four-year-old sister, Betsy. Her six-month-old sister Dixie was being carried by her mother, Catherine.

They stopped close to the dock near where her father, a physician, had just finished his overnight shift and was about to disembark on the gangplank.  It was unusual for him to work that shift, but they planned to join him that Sunday morning with the picnic basket they packed for breakfast. 

He waved to them from the USS Honolulu, just seconds before a low-flying aircraft flew over the harbor. Then, the loudest noise Virginia had ever heard exploded near them.

It was a 550-pound bomb that hit the Naval Station dock 20 feet from where the cruiser was moored. 

“It was so loud, terribly loud,” she recalls. “At first, we didn’t see them (the planes) until the bombs started dropping.” 

With the smoke from the bombs, Virginia could no longer see her father, who had returned to the ship.

“He realized before we did what was happening,” she said. “My mother was busy corralling three of us, but the bombs were coming, and she realized we had to go someplace. The planes were low enough we could see the pilots’ faces and see the red circles (marking of the Empire of Japan) on the planes.” 

Virginia, her sisters and mother made it along the Southeast Lock to the Hickam officers’ club, which was being shelled as well. They then hurried and hid underneath a bandstand in a park near the dock.

“They were shooting or shelling anybody who’s walking or in cars and was trying to leave so we had to hide,” she remembered.

That was Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941 — 80 years ago. 

At the docks, more than 150 U.S. Pacific fleet ships and service craft were anchored at 8 a.m. when Virginia Wood Harris had arrived just before the first wave of nearly 200 Japanese torpedo planes, bombers and fighters. A second wave dropped additional bombs 30 minutes later. It has been documented that by late morning, 19 ships were damaged or sunk, having been destroyed by the Japanese bombers. 

Her father’s ship suffered hull damage and extensive flooding from a bomb that hit and created a 17-by-15-foot hole in the dock.

Before that day, Harris enjoyed riding her bike, putting together puzzles, reading animal stories, singing songs about rainbows and playing with friends in the neighborhood, which was about 20 miles away from the base. She attended second grade at Punahou, the same private school which former President Barrack Obama later attended.

“We went barefoot at school — I don’t know why,” she said. “My parents were big on education. They were both college graduates. (Her mother was a librarian before she was married.) I never went to a military school. I always went to a public school or if they didn’t think it was good enough, I went to a private school.”

Oahu was a tropical, lush utopia, with a gentle climate and sugar cane and pineapple plantations back then, Virginia said.  What she remembered most was the sparkling water and beautiful beaches.

“It was paradise. They couldn’t keep me out of the water,” she said.

Harris was shielded from the fact World War II was going on — until that surprise attack.

In an instant, her years of innocence ended.

While scores of youngsters may have witnessed the attack that killed 11 children under the age of 16, Harris may have been amongst the closest.  

“I was right there, and I knew right then what was going on,” she said. “I remember I kept saying, ‘Are we going to die?’ You could hear the noise and that was what was so scary. It was the noise, a horrible noise, and then to see that smash where it landed. The bombs were dropping on the ships, and we were right near it. We were so scared.”

Virginia, Betsy and Dixie huddled against their mother for hours. Servicemen, who also took shelter there from the shelling, were shocked to see them.

“There were all the sailors; they were trying to get to their ships. The shore patrol from the Navy came by and said (to my mother), ‘What the hell are you doing here?’” she said. 

The family car, which they drove to pick up her father for that special breakfast, was turned over to a medical corpsman so it could be used as an ambulance. A chaplain later came by after the bombing and took them home. 

“I don’t remember looking back at the ships. We were trying to get out of there,” she said, adding that although they were aware that the servicemen were in danger, they were still scared for their own lives.

Their home was intact, but it wasn’t the same.

“We had some Japanese ladies helping with the house who left and never came back. They left on their own because honestly any Japanese then were suspect,” she said, adding that they ended up having some other women stay at their home. 

The next day, Virginia remembers listening to the radio when President Franklin D. Roosevelt said Dec. 7 would be “a date which will live in infamy.” An hour later, Congress passed a formal declaration of war against the Empire of Japan, which officially brought the U.S. into World War II.

Her father returned home a week later, not knowing his family’s fate until then. 

“He said he chose ‘the wrong day for the picnic,’” Harris recalled. Other than that, “he never discussed what he did.”  

She didn’t return to school, as it was cancelled after the attack that had crippled the United States’ naval and air strength in the Pacific.

“Everything was shut down with the battle, everything, because they were afraid that we were going to have another round. Everything sort of stopped for a couple months,” Harris said. “Everybody was just scared. I remember blackouts every night because we were afraid the Japanese were coming back.”

Within two months, she, along with her sisters and mother, were evacuated to San Francisco. But that, too, wasn’t without incident.

“We were sitting on a convoy and one night, they were afraid the Japanese subs were trailing. So, they took everyone on the deck, in case they had to abandon the ship,” she said, adding that thankfully that didn’t happen.

Her father, and the family beagle, Benny, arrived five months later on the restored USS Honolulu.

“Not many people can bring a dog back on a warship,” she remembered.

The family moved several more times and Virginia ended her junior and senior years of high school at a private school in London, where she traveled and saw first-hand the reconstruction from the war.  

Her father, Capt. John P. Wood, who served both at the Pearl Harbor Naval Hospital and then on the USS Honolulu, led a “long and distinguished service,” according to a letter he received from the secretary of the U.S. Navy upon his retirement in 1957.

The letter said that he “set standards of performance that will be most difficult to emulate.”

The Navy secretary wished him many years of health and happiness, which were not to happen. Wood had studied radiology at Massachusetts General Hospital at a time when radiation protection measures were unknown and died of cancer at age 61, soon after his retirement.

Virginia followed in her father’s footsteps and studied at Baylor University, his alma mater. She married and became a teacher, working in education for 39 years, joining her family’s tradition of teachers and doctors. 

Through the years, Virginia Wood Harris has shared her story with her family and others, emphasizing the importance of learning from it.

While Harris has no plans to return to Pearl Harbor this month for the commemoration, she did take her family back in 2013, the first time she had returned since she left after the bombing, to visit her grandson who was stationed there on a submarine. 

Harris showed her family around the base as well as her neighborhood and school, which still had her name in its records. The officers’ club and bandstand were no longer there, but they walked the now repaired dock and visited the USS Arizona Memorial — and she relived the day when she saw first-hand the attacks that brought the United States into World War II.