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Pearl Harbor through a child’s eyes

Peggy Dover photo Alvin Chandler talks about witnessing the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor when he was 8 years old.

Eight-year-old Alvin Chandler was taking out the trash and getting ready for catechism class when he heard the explosions. Natural curiosity sent him scrambling onto the roof for a better look. Even in December, the sun shone warm, because he and his family lived on Oahu — their island paradise in the Hawaiian Territory. His father served in the Coast Guard at Barber’s Point lighthouse.

Alvin’s excitement grew as he looked across to Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field, the United States Air Force installation. He didn’t know what was happening, only that the sky swarmed with airplanes flying low over his neighborhood. One plane flew so low, he could see the Japanese pilot from his rooftop vantage point. Alvin waved.

“I could see the pilot and another guy in the back,” said Alvin, 88, who now lives in Medford.

It was Dec. 7, 1941 — the day Pearl Harbor came under surprise attack by the Japanese military.

“I wasn’t scared until my mother started screaming, looking for me,” Alvin recalled. “I rolled down the house roof to the garage and got down. She put us all underneath the bed. We stayed under the bed all day and all night, because we didn’t know what was going on.”

Meanwhile, an enemy plane had missed its water tank target and annihilated a Japanese family in their home nearby. The gunner strafed a hotel, then headed on toward Pearl Harbor.

“Then came nighttime,” Alvin continued. “I was hungry and asked Mom if we could eat something. Mom tried to feed us the best she could. I think we had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Till today, I still like peanut butter and jelly. Mom happened to turn the light on and a soldier came in the door. In the old days we never locked doors. And he told Mom to turn the light out or he was going to shoot it out.

“A Japanese neighbor had a big hothouse. He made a living growing plants. I remember these soldiers coming in, and they found some guns in boxes underneath the plants. The soldiers dragged them [the family] out. They had the wife by the hair, dragging her down the stairs. I hated American soldiers then because they were attacking my neighbors. Being 8 years old, I didn’t know what was going on.”

Alvin’s mother tried to calm him and his sister. The family did not hear from Alvin’s father for two days, but he survived the attack and soon joined the Navy to serve for the rest of WWII.

“There were soldiers all over the place,” Alvin continued. “They were so confused. Later I found out they were shooting at each other — our soldiers. They thought the [Japanese] had landed on the other side of the island. I don’t know if anybody was hit. There was a lot of confusion.”

Alvin’s cousin witnessed events at Hickam Field firsthand. He watched as a fleeing sailor ran across the airfield. “My cousin told me a [Japanese gunner] shot the sailor from an airplane and cut him in half.”

Alvin and his family survived that destruction and chaos, and eventually he joined the Navy, serving in the Korean War.

“I spent some time in Korea — a time I’d like to forget, but I can’t. I was a hospital corpsman — a medic on a Marine base. I treated the wounded. There are some things I remember. I remember a marine got hit in the chest and he couldn’t breathe. So I did a tracheotomy on him. I had never done that before. I was 18. From what I remember, the good Lord just said do this and do that and he did it for me. My hands became the Lord’s, or he put something in me because I’d never done that before, but I had to. He died anyway. I’ll never forget his name — John Alvin James. He had all first names.”

Alvin attended school. He married, helped raise four kids, and eventually became a quality control engineer for NASA, where he worked on the Voyager and Galileo projects on the Cape that he loved. “I made sure they did their job according to procedure. I witnessed when the Challenger blew up. That was a sad day. We lost seven astronauts.”

Last year, Alvin survived flames and explosions once more when Northridge Center, the assisted living facility in which he lived, burned to ashes in the Almeda fire. He lost what few possessions he had, but his life was spared.

My sincere thanks to Mr. Chandler, now 88, for sharing his story and life with us. He’s seen more devastation than most. Thank you to my friend Juliana Kelsall, Alvin’s neighbor and friend at Orchards, their assisted living community. His story surfaced over lunch one day, and Jules thought I might be interested. Stories abide in the hallways, in wheelchairs and behind closed doors, awaiting a listener.

This week we commemorate the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. May we persevere in prayer for peace on Earth, and exchange the gift of grace this season.

Peggy Dover is a freelance writer/author. Reach her at pcdover@homail.com.