fb pixel

Log In

Reset Password

'It was chaos'

It was 13-year-old Jim Wolfe's Sunday morning ritual to retrieve the newspaper comics while his parents slept in.

Just before 8 o'clock, he stepped outside. But instead of finding a newspaper on the ground, Wolfe saw a chilling sight overhead.

"I look up and the sky is full of airplanes and they are all Japanese with the big red ball on their fuselage and on their wings," the 88-year-old Medford resident recalled.

Zooming past were 183 warplanes, including 40 torpedo planes, 49 high-level bombers, 51 dive bombers and 43 fighters headed for nearby Pearl Harbor and other American military installations.

"At first I was surprised," Wolfe said. "I wondered where the Army got ahold of those planes with red balls on them. It didn't take me very long to realize they were Japanese; they didn't look like any American planes. When I saw they were Japanese, I began to be frightened, because I didn't know why they were there."

Moments later, a coordinated attack unfolded as high-level and dive bombers struck Hickam Field, near Ford Island’s Battleship Row and Wheeler Field, north of Pearl Harbor.

Wolfe, whose father was a civilian engineer working for the U.S. Army, had a front-row seat to the "date which will live in infamy" from his base housing overlooking Hickam and the naval base.

The attackers were still roaring overhead as Wayne and Florence Wolfe joined their son Dec. 7, 1941. It was a mile and a half to the harbor, but there was nothing but open space separating them from the docks.

The riveting and revolting two hours that followed filled the teenager with fear as clustered American planes were blown up, and nearby battleships sunk.

"I got more and more frightened," said Wolfe, who has lived with his wife of 66 years, Dorothy, at Rogue Valley Manor for the past two decades.

One terrifying moment then took a gruesome turn.

A disabled two-seat Nakajima B5N2 "Kate" torpedo bomber passed by with its propeller barely turning.

"He was only about 40 feet in the air," Wolfe recalled. "The pilot faced forward and the gunner faced aft. As he came by, the gunner was swinging his machine gun back and forth. He was so low I could see his goggles and his face, but he wasn't firing. I think he had run out of ammunition and I think maybe his gun was jammed. Had he been firing, I was such an open target I would've been killed."

The Kate crash-landed just outside of Hickam Field, Wolfe said. "In a little village, where only full-blooded Hawaiians lived. They were big husky men, and as soon as the pilot stopped, the Hawaiians ran over to the plane, pulled the two pilots out and tore them limb from limb, killed them both."

The day before the raid, Army Air Corps commanders had ordered American planes bunched together on the runway to avoid sabotage.

"When the Japanese came over they were all bunched up really nice for them, really handy," Wolfe said.

Within 15 minutes, an armor-piercing bomb, dropped by a high-altitude bomber, penetrated the forward deck of the Arizona, setting off more than a million pounds of gunpowder. The battleship sank to the bottom in nine minutes.

"I was saying, 'Here they come again' when the Arizona blew up," Wolfe said. "It was tremendously loud and scary. The explosion, black, sooty smoke, it was chaos. There were soldiers running around not knowing what to do. The ammunition and guns were locked up for safety and nobody knew who had the keys."

With American air response effectively neutralized and naval operations in chaos, the second Japanese wave of 170 planes, about 45 minutes after the first, targeted airfields with dive bombers and high-level bombers. Fighters targeted parked aircraft and floating targets of opportunity.

Around 10 o'clock, the Army rounded up civilian employees, including Wolfe's father, and issued them rifles to defend against a possible invasion.

"When I saw him leave with a rifle slung over his back, I thought I'll never see him again; that's pretty hard on a 13-year-old," he said. "There was a lot of noise, bomb bursts, anti-aircraft going on, and soldiers running every which way. There was general chaos, and he was leaving me and my mother. I was really getting frightened by that time."

The engineers were told to go to Kewalo Basin, near Hickam, where the Japanese fishermen moored their sampans, he said. The civilians were instructed to pull the plug in the bottom of sampans and let each sampan sink to provide a barrier for any Japanese soldier coming ashore.

"The problem was they never could find the plug and the sampans never sank," Wolfe said. "But the Japanese never came ashore either, so it worked out all right."

Within two hours after Wolfe had ventured out to grab the morning paper, 2,403 people were killed, including 2,008 sailors, 109 Marines, 218 soldiers and 68 civilians. Another 1,178 were wounded. The attack sank or disabled 19 ships and destroyed 169 American aircraft.

At first, Wolfe wondered how such a thing could happen.

"I knew the Japanese could attack the Philippines, Indonesia and China, but how could they attack Pearl Harbor with all the planes and ships?" he said. "We were well fortified. My second reaction was that they were pretty smart, because they pulled off a complete surprise."

Around noon, the Army sent buses to pick up women and children from the base and send them to Honolulu, where they could be housed with locals.

"We were on that bus until almost dark, letting people off, driving some more and letting more people off," he recalled. "When my mother and I, and several mothers with littler children, got off the bus, we knocked on the door. The lady opened the door and she's Japanese. She was a very gracious woman, made us supper, because we hadn't eaten all day. Then she said to me, 'You're oldest man here, you have to guard the women and children. I'll give you this knife' — a good-sized paring knife. She said, 'You lay down in front of the door, and if the Japanese come ashore and come toward us, you have to defend the women and children.' I laid down and my mother laid down beside me. I was so tired I immediately went to sleep, but shortly after going to sleep I had a nightmare. I cried out: 'I've got 'em, I've got 'em.' And I almost knifed my mother before she woke me up."

Until August 1941, Wolfe had never seen the ocean — or mountains, for that matter. He spent his formative years in Neligh, a town of 1,600 in northeast Nebraska, before moving to Oahu.

"Suddenly, I saw it all," said Wolfe.

"It was kind of exciting. I used to swim in the entrance to Pearl Harbor with my friends. The harbor entrance was 40 feet deep and you could see the bottom. We'd throw pennies and nickels in and try to get them before they went too deep; it was really a nice time."

There wasn't a base school, so he was in a neighboring public school.

"I had lots of friends, and we had a good time together," Wolfe said. "We didn't have the foggiest idea about what was going to happen."

In the days immediately following the attack, rumors of an impending invasion increasingly made the rounds.

After a week, Wolfe and his mother were reunited with his father, who had phoned Dec. 8 to tell them he was OK.

Hawaiian schools closed until the following September, and Florence Wolfe, who oversaw the post exchange at Hickam Field, wasn't about to let her son become a couch potato.

"You've got to look for a job," she told her son. "I told her, 'I'm too young to work.' She said, 'Lie about your age.' So I did. I said I was 16, and she hired me. I was the only man working in the PX."

Three months later, the PX began selling low-grade beer.

"The rule was that only men could serve beer in the PX," he said. "Being the only man, I got to serve the beer — I was 14 by that time."

The logistics of serving the watered-down beer were challenging as soldiers queued up to buy four long-necked bottles of 25-cent suds.

"I had to open them and then they had to take the beer outside. The GIs in the back were always saying, 'Hey, what's going on, why is it so slow, what's the trouble?' But I was going as fast as I could, and within 15 minutes I was covered with beer. To this day, I'm not too fond of beer."

In the months before returning to the mainland, Wolfe got to know pilots and support crews who took part in the Battle for Midway as they passed through Hickam.

"They would come over for a Coca-Cola," Wolfe said. "My mother was a pretty woman, about 35 at the time, and they were homesick. So they would buy a Coke, and sit and talk. When Midway started, they would go out in squadrons of 11 or 12 planes; just one or two would come back. They were all my mother's young friends. It was just a slaughter, we lost a tremendous number of men. I lost friends, too. They were 20, 21 years old in the prime of life, but that's war."

Later that summer, Wolfe and his mother were evacuated from Oahu back to Nebraska.

"I was a hero for one week, and then I had to go back to the eighth grade, because we hadn't finished the school year," he said.

A year and a half later, Wayne Wolfe was sent to Denver, where the family was again reunited.

Wolfe graduated from high school in 1947 and planned to join the Air Force after finishing college. But his wife was pregnant with their first child by then, and he was exempted.

Instead, he followed his father's footsteps, working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for 25 years. Later he worked for a Bay Area engineering firm.

Wolfe still possesses two Honolulu Star-Bulletin extra editions detailing the death and destruction at Pearl Harbor. He collected shrapnel from the anti-aircraft shells that "rained down" after exploding amid the wave of Japanese planes.

"I was a young boy then, but I became a man in 24 hours," he said. "It had a profound effect on me." 

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

Jim Wolfe, who was 13 and lived at Hickam Air Field when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, shares his memories Friday at Rogue Valley Manor in Medford. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
In this image provided by the U.S. Navy, sailors stand among wrecked airplanes at Ford Island Naval Air Station as they watch the explosion of the USS Shaw in the background, during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941. AP Photo/U.S. Navy