Touring Pearl Harbor and the Complexities of History

A week ago I was enjoying my final hours of a once-in-a-lifetime vacation in Hawaii. I spent a week on Kauai, known as the Garden Island for its abundant natural beauty, with my husband, my siblings, and their spouses. I’d read up on places like Waimea Canyon (which is breathtaking), but didn’t know anything about the feral chickens until I arrived on the island. This hen flew up on our lanai to escape the attentions of a persistent rooster. Kauai chicken

Instead of flying straight home, we opted to spend a day on Oahu so we could visit the Pearl Harbor sites. We only had about five hours, so we couldn’t see everything. We started at the USS Missouri.

We had a very knowledgeable tour guide who told us a lot about the battleship and its role in World War II. There was just enough time to get immersed in that history before taking the shuttle back to the Pearl Harbor Memorial for our abbreviated tour of the USS Arizona Memorial.

USS Arizona Memorial, watery grave of Pearl Harbor sailors, remains closed as officials mull repairs

Abbreviated because now it consists of an introductory film followed by a boat ride that takes visitors around the memorial. The building is closed for repairs. We knew that before we arrived; still, it was a disappointment that detracts from the power of the memorial.

The USS Arizona was bombed and sunk by Japanese planes on the morning of December 7, 1941. Over eleven hundred crew members died. The memorial sits on top of its wreckage, with some nine hundred bodies that couldn’t be recovered.

What I’ve been thinking about the most since that visit is Army Air Corps First Lieutenant Kermit Tyler. He was on temporary duty at the radar station at Fort Shafter on the morning of December 7, 1941. A fighter pilot, Tyler had only brief instructions on radar operations as an observer-trainee before taking his seat in that station on that fateful morning. Tyler received a communication from another radio operator at the northern end of Oahu at the Opana Radar Station. There were some fast approaching aircraft lighting up his screen.

“Don’t worry about it,” Tyler responded. He knew a batch of B-17 bombers were due in from the the mainland. The message didn’t include a crucial piece of information: the sheer number of planes causing all those radar blips.

The rest, as we know, is history. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor that morning, drawing the United States into World War II. Numerous inquiries exonerated Tyler of any wrongdoing on December 7. He went on to fly combat missions in the Pacific theater during the war, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 1961.

Perhaps it’s only human to want to be able to trace the blame for a catastrophic event back to one person. But lots of mistakes were made leading up to December 7. Kermit Tyler wasn’t responsible for Pearl Harbor, but for the rest of his life he had to live with those words he uttered that morning.

The Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu has an exhibit panel about the events of that morning. It includes a sidebar on Tyler’s role that poses the pertinent question: “His assessment was based on deductive reasoning with limited information and two days’ experience. Would you have acted differently?”

Image result for turtle bay resort pearl harbor radar

It is important to know what Kermit Tyler did on the morning of December 7, 1941 not so we can point fingers and assess blame, but to understand how incredibly complex history is.

For various views on why Pearl Harbor happened, read:



December 7, 1941

Gladys Slaughter Savary, an American woman living in Manila, the capital city of the Philippine Islands, had not even been to bed when Pearl Harbor was bombed. That Sunday night (Manila is on the other side of the International Dateline), she invited some friends to her Restaurant de Paris for dinner, a celebration of the promotion of a British naval officer she knew. After their meal, they headed over to the Jai Alai Club to watch a match–a “great weakness” of Gladys’s. Then they stopped at a nightclub before moving on to the Manila Hotel for drinks on the pavilion. Gladys and her friends concluded their evening at an all-night gambling den where they played roulette until dawn. When they finally dropped her at home, the newly-promoted British admiral said, “Kids, that’s the last fun we’ll have together for a long, long time.”

Image result for Jai Alai club manila 1930s Jai Alai Club, Manila

It was too late–or too early–for Gladys to go to sleep. As it was, she would have just enough time to shower, change, and eat a bit of breakfast before venturing out to the market to purchase the day’s food for the restaurant. When her servant Nick brought her morning coffee and the newspaper, he said, “Honolulu’s bombed. What’ll we do now?”

Image result for honolulu dec. 7, 1941KCBX-FM photo

Gladys’s first response was as a businesswoman. The restaurant would be busy, she predicted, because people were always hungry. She told Nick they would do their shopping as usual. “War or no war, we have to eat,” Gladys wrote in her diary. “I bought everything in large quantities. Nobody can know what’ll happen.”

During the ensuing days, as bombs fell on Manila and utilities stuttered on and off, Gladys worried about how long she would be able to keep the Restaurant de Paris going. It also did not take her long to realize that other people needed help, and the restaurant came in handy for meeting some of those needs. Gladys fed the American and Filipino soldiers who patrolled her neighborhood. “I haven’t time to do canteen work or roll bandages,” she jotted in her diary on December 16th, “so I have a private canteen for the lads. When they go on duty they get coffee and pastry here, and when they finish duty I hand them out something a bit stronger. Both seem to be appreciated, bless them.”

Image result for manila dec. 8, 1941

The United States was at war with Japan. Gladys Savary and thousands of other Americans were trapped in the Philippines. It was true, no one could know what would happen. For more than three years, Gladys struggled to survive in enemy-occupied territory, risking her own safety and freedom to subvert the Japanese and help those in need.

The rest of her story can be found in Angels of the Underground: The American Women who Resisted the Japanese in the Philippines in World War II.