By Andy Ostmeyer
Editor’s note: This story is the result of new interviews as well as previous interviews with former soldiers and sailors who had been stationed at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, but who have since passed away.
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, many Americans were unfamiliar with the vast Pacific and its atolls and archipelagos. Even Hawaii, then a U.S. territory, remained an exotic, relatively unknown locale.
“Nobody knew where Pearl Harbor was,” recalls Bunny Newton, 89.
Newton grew up in McAlester, Okla. His family owned a jewelry business and had opened a store in downtown Joplin two years earlier. Then 19, Newton was attending a military school in Roswell, N.M., and it was from a handful of students who had lived in Hawaii that he and others got their geography lesson about Pearl Harbor that day.
Howard Spiva was then an 18-year-old student at Stella High School, and like a lot of other men, his knowledge of the world was limited. He had never been farther from his Newton County farm than Kansas City, but within a few years the events that unfolded 71 years ago today would acquaint him firsthand with the Pacific. Spiva would serve in Australia, New Caledonia, New Guinea, the Philippines and eventually Japan.
“I had never heard of New Caledonia,” Spiva recalled this week, referring to the islands 750 miles off the coast of Australia. “I had heard of Australia.”
Nor did Spiva have any idea that the Philippines consisted not of one, or even a handful, but of thousands of islands.
Within a few years he got to know that country firsthand, too.
“I made three landings in the Philippines,” Spiva said.
The news on Dec. 7, 1941 — that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing the United States into World War II — came as a shock to these men and the rest of the nation.
“Roosevelt had said we would not go to war,” Newton recalled, referring to President Franklin Roosevelt. “Of course, when Pearl Harbor happened we knew that was it. We just knew it was an act of war and we would all be going.”
Spiva: “Right away people were saying, ‘I wonder if I will have to go to the service.’ We all knew we were the age group.”
Although Pearl Harbor, Wake Island, the Philippines and other places attacked that day by the Japanese may have been relatively unknown to many of the 18-year-old men living in the Four-State Area, they were a reality for others that morning.
Byron Lengquist was a flight engineer from Riverton, Kan., stationed at Hickam Field in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941.
Nelson Glidewell, of Carthage, was a 25-year-old Navy signalman on the USS Oklahoma in Pearl Harbor that morning. Diamond native Clifford Goodwin, an electrician’s mate, also was on board that battleship.
Carl Christiansen and his brother Edward, from Columbus, Kan., were on the USS Arizona, also at Pearl, preparing to go to the beach that Sunday morning. A Joplin man, Walter Roberts, also was serving on the Arizona.
Lengquist told the Globe in 1991 that he assumed the commotion he began hearing early that morning was the U.S. Navy performing mock maneuvers. Then he heard someone shout: “That ain’t the Navy.”
Planes were coming in low and the men stationed there soon identified the Rising Sun painted on the fuselages.
In the chaos of explosions, they wondered if it was real, Lengquist recalled, and if the island was being invaded. Prying up a manhole cover at the airfield, he and others disappeared below ground to escape Japanese strafing.
Glidewell watched the first bombs that were dropped, and he later told the Globe that he assumed it was an accident until he, too, saw the symbols on the sides of the incoming planes. As he ran for his battle station, a torpedo hit the Oklahoma, then other torpedoes followed, causing the battleship to list steeply to port. All the time he kept his eyes on an open hatch above, but when men started securing nearby open hatches, Glidewell — reasoning that he would rather risk court-martial or even being shot for abandoning his post than drown — escaped and made his way to the main deck, where he skidded down, holding on to a lifeline.
Suddenly everything turned red, he recalled, and he felt terrific heat rising up from the nearby USS Arizona.
Carl Christiansen was waiting on the quarterdeck of the Arizona when the attack began that morning. His brother had returned below minutes earlier to retrieve something.
“Somebody hollered, ‘It’s the Japanese,’” Christiansen recalled years later. The ship was hit at almost the same instant, and an armor-piercing round set off 1.7 million pounds of ammunition and fuel stored in the ship.
Christiansen later said he didn’t remember any great boom. The ship seemed to rise up, then settle back in the water. Someone — he doesn’t know who — led remaining survivors topside, where they jumped off the ship and tried to swim to shore. However, the harbor itself was on fire from the oil that was burning, and swimming was impossible. Christiansen returned to the remains of the Arizona and waited with a small group of survivors until a rescue boat arrived.
Glidewell, meanwhile, had jumped into the harbor, and swam toward nearby Ford Island, escaping before a fourth torpedo hit the Oklahoma, rolling the ship over.
The explosion on the Arizona entombed nearly 1,200 men, including Roberts and Edward Christiansen, whom Carl never saw again once he returned below deck.
Four-hundred men on the Oklahoma also died, including Goodwin, of Diamond.
Glidewell, who survived, would remain stationed at Pearl Harbor, readying the ships and planes that would take the war across the Pacific. Carl Christiansen and Lengquist were going with them.
When the United States entered World War I, there were parades and the soldiers who had enlisted were given a steak dinner before they shipped out.
That was not the case when the United States entered World War II.
“There were no unusually large crowds on downtown streets last night,” the Joplin News Herald reported on Dec. 8, 1941. “Many persons remained up until a late hour, listening to their radios in their homes.
“As Joplin went to work this morning there was a noticeable atmosphere of grim silence on buses and on streets.”
Joplin’s airport closed to all but military aircraft. On the orders of the FBI, Joplin police canvassed the town for Japanese, but the last Japanese nationals had moved out 18 months before, the police reported.
Before dawn that morning, a group of men began gathering at the recruiting office, including two Sarcoxie men, 18-year-old Lloyd Tillock and 20-year-old Harold Whaley — the first two of thousands who would pass through that office during the war.
So busy was the recruiting office that day that it remained open until midnight.
In all, according to Joplin Globe reports in 1945, about 5,000 Joplin-area men and women were in uniform during World War II, and 166 of them died. Their names are listed on the Wives and Mothers Monument at Memorial Hall.
Spiva and Newton said the attack on Dec. 7, 1941, was a bigger shock than the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“It was more dramatic because we didn’t know what it had done to our Pacific fleet,” Newton said. “There was talk the Japanese would be coming to the West Coast.”
Newton worked on liberty ships that had been converted into air depots, where military aircraft damaged in the Pacific Theater were repaired.
Spiva became a combat engineer serving throughout the Pacific.
When he left, his younger sister was in the eighth grade.
“When I came home she was graduating from high school. I didn’t even know her. My family all looked different.”
According to the U.S. Veterans Administration, 60,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen served in Hawaii during the attack upon the U.S. fleet in Pearl Harbor and other sites across the islands on Dec. 7, 1941. Last year, on the 70th anniversary, only about 3,000 were still alive.
More than 2,000 service members died as a result of the fighting that day, and about 1,000 others were wounded, the first casualties in a four-year tally of 400,000 U.S. deaths in uniform and nearly 700,000 wounded, according to the VA.