NOMA — I was 10 years old in 1941 and did not understand the implications of an impending world war. My father, Louis Dreller, was a naval officer stationed on the USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser, which was the flagship for the Pacific fleet. Pearl Harbor was the base from which the Indianapolis operated.
Our family lived in Hawaii to be near dad. He was out at sea much of the time. We felt lucky to be living on the island of Oahu where he returned often to direct the overhauling of ships in Pearl Harbor.
This was a magical time in the islands, before statehood and the influx of tourist hotels, condominiums and shopping malls. The islands were sleepy rural environments, relatively untouched. There were only three hotels on Oahu: the Royal Hawaiian which was elegant and offered sweeping views of the coastline; the Halekalani, a rustic, tranquil, tropical setting; and the Moana, a sweeping, old-world style building with large, spreading trees. We lived far from Pearl Harbor in the Nuuanu Valley, an area lush with vegetation. Houses were scattered along a winding road up a mountain. Next door to our modest house was an estate with large grounds tended by a staff of Japanese gardeners. Our home overlooked their tropical gardens. I never stepped into them, but they were romantic vistas for me to feast my eyes.
My father and our neighbor, Lt. Cmdr. Rochefort, often met to discuss their theory that the Japanese would attack Pearl Harbor. Rochefort was with Navy intelligence. He had broken a code, which said that the Japanese were planning to bomb Pearl Harbor. Both dad and Rochefort communicated what they had discovered to the Navy brass at Pearl and to anyone who would listen, but no one took them seriously. I remember many evenings when guests were over for dinner and my father would explain why the Japanese would attack and that it was the strategic thing for them to do. But nobody took him seriously. He left to go out to sea in September. Before he sailed, he made reservations on the Matson Lines for my mother, my sister and I to sail to California on Nov. 13 and thus escape the attack he feared would happen.
There was no commercial airline travel to the islands in those days, only the stately ocean liners, the Lurline and the Matsonia, were available for commuting. They traveled a leisurely five-day route from Long Beach to Honolulu. Accommodations were exquisitely detailed; teak carpentry, sweeping staircases, gracious dining arrangements, dancing after dinner, wonderful menus with covers of Hawaiian paintings. Hawaiian food was served; fish, papaya, pineapple, fresh coconut cake. This was an era of intimate, tasteful living, long vanished from the American ocean liners of today.
As soon as my father left, my mother defied my father and canceled the reservations. She felt we were in no danger. It turned out, she was wrong. My father’s predictions came true when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
I remember the day well. We lived in a two-story house that rested on a hill. The top story was the living area and the bottom story housed the bedrooms. They were rather insulated from noise, so I did not hear any sounds when I woke up on Sunday morning. I thought I was the only one up so I ran out to play, waiting for my mother and sister to awaken so we could have breakfast. I arose early, around 7 o’clock, and went out of the house. We lived on a beautiful road called Oahu Avenue. It ran for miles, in a rural setting of Hawaiian vegetation, through the valley and up into the hills.
I began to walk leisurely down the valley when I noticed hot metal in the street. It was shrapnel from bursting bombs. I was fascinated with it and began to collect it to take home and use for molding tin soldiers. We owned a kit whereby we melted metal and poured it into molds to make soldiers and then painted them. I observed planes diving low and “ack-ack” fire hitting the planes. I saw and heard what sounded like bombs bursting. I assumed it was practice, and that it was a mock battle. We had been preparing for war and having practice raids for months, however, never on a Sunday and usually out at sea. I did wonder what was going on when I noticed the rising sun emblem on the planes. In my imagination, I assumed the Navy was going all out to look realistic.
I wandered on, collecting the hot metal and wondered if this were a practice or the real thing. I realized the streets were empty. No one around. Just as the enormity was beginning to dawn on me, a woman ran out of her house and grabbed me and pulled me into her house. She shouted at me. “Don’t you know there’s a war on? You will get killed out there in the street.” She was hysterical. I ran out of her house and back up the hill to my own home.
I looked for my mother. She was gone and had left a note saying she went off with Mrs. Rochefort to the highest mountain, Tantalus, to watch the war. She would be back. I ran to get my sister, who refused to allow me to awaken her. She was a teenager, who had been on a Saturday night date and wanted to sleep late. I don’t think she realized what I was telling her. So, I turned on the radio to listen to the news. So many messages were thrown at me. “Fill your bathtub with water. Do not go outside. We expect Japanese spies on the island to take over the radio and the telephones. Don’t believe anything you hear unless it has been confirmed. Many ships have been sunk in the harbor. This is war. Make something to black out your windows, either paint them or put up blackout curtains. Do not turn any lights on when it is dark. Use candles which cannot be seen.”
While I was waiting for my mother to come home and my sister to wake up, I received a call from Lt. Cmdr. Rochefort telling me he would let us know as soon as the Navy had word about the Indianapolis. He also told me in case I got calls from anyone else identifying themselves as naval personnel, not to believe them. He said the Japanese spies had prepared well for the attack and had lists of our ships with the names and phone numbers of every naval officer attached, and might call to say my father had been killed. I was not to believe them. I was to believe nothing unless I heard it direct from him.
I filled the bathtub with water and waited for my mother while wondering if my father was safe. He certainly had understood the Japanese plans. I was proud of his ability to predict the attack, yet worried for his safety. The next day we received telegrams from both my mother’s and my father’s families asking if we were safe. As I write this memoir, I can imagine their anxiety way off in Boston and Los Angeles, not being able to envision how safe we were, suspecting the worse.
Each Sunday at dusk, the Japanese maids walked up the valley to return to the homes they worked and lived in six days a week. It was a picturesque Sunday parade, watching them stroll up in their kimonos and getis. I loved that scene of the women taking delicate steps, wearing traditional garb, carrying paper parasols, chatting to each other in Japanese.
This Sunday was different. The maids were very frightened. They were in shock. Certainly, they had been as surprised by the raid as the rest of us. It turned out that none of the Japanese population on the islands were spies. As they climbed the hill, our neighbors jeered at them, yelling insults. My mother, my sister and I ran out to protect them. We yelled back at the neighbors claiming the maids’ innocence. We escorted Kieko, our maid, into our home and comforted her.
My father was safe. He stayed out at sea. We left our beloved islands in tears. My calico cat, Butterscotch, had just produced five kittens when we were given one day’s notice to evacuate. Instead of leaving the islands by the stately Matson Lines, we were evacuated in late February, l942, by troop ship, the USS Henderson. These ships plied the Pacific picking up dependents in Hawaii, escorting them to the states and returning to Pearl with a shipload of green recruits.
We were lucky to get on a ship as they were bulging with people frantic to get back to the states. The skipper of the Henderson was a personal friend. He squeezed us on board at the very last minute. Instead of the plush staterooms we were accustomed to, my mother, my sister and I were separated on three different decks. We slept in bunks in rooms that accommodated eight people.
The troop ship was escorted by submarines and cruisers to protect us in case of attack. We carried life jackets with us at all times. We zig-zagged across the Pacific to try to elude enemy submarines. It was a 13-day crossing, with blackout lights, practice air raids and submarine attacks. Each person was assigned a lifeboat station. Although our little family was on different decks, the crew had been thoughtful to put us together at one lifeboat station.
One night, when we were all asleep, the alarms rang out. We grabbed our life jackets and went quickly and cautiously to our stations. Enemy submarines had been spotted. My mother and sister arrived at our station and the crew began to lower the lifeboats. I vividly remember my knees knocking against each other and my teeth chattering. It was dark and cold. We could make no noise and show no lights so the enemy would not hear or see us. We waited for a very long time, until the all clear was sounded. We had escaped notice by the Japanese subs and were safe and able to return to our cabins. It took a long while before I stopped shaking.
We waited in Los Angeles for my dad to return from sea duty. I had just completed my sixth grade year in Los Angeles, the school year that had been interrupted by the war, when my father received new orders. Dad was assigned to the Philadelphia Naval Yard to design and oversee the construction of war ships. We moved to Philadelphia. I went to junior high in Drexel Hill, one of the many stately towns on the Main Line. My dad worked seven days a week during the entire war years to commission one ship after another.
When the war was over we were reassigned to Hawaii. My father was promoted to admiral and put in command of Pearl Harbor Naval Base. We returned to the islands in 1946 happy and victorious.
Doris Sosin is a Santa Monica resident and a founder of the North of Montana Association and the Santa Monica Conservancy.