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Hawaii before Pearl Harbor

May 23, 1941

Hanover graduate William Hargrave was stationed on the Hawaiian Islands in May 1941. In a letter he wrote home, Hargrave demonstrated the lax attitude of Americans before we were pulled into World War II. Hargrave's description of life on the island is important because it displays how we, as Americans, were caught off guard by the Japanese as they attacked Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor located on the Hawaiian Islands on December 7, 1941. The United States military was caught off guard when the Japanese attacked in the early morning hours. The United States lost approximately 188 planes and 18 warships, while 2,403 American military officers and civilians were killed and 1,178 were injured. This provided the United States, who until then had remained neutral, with motive to enter the war. The United States joined Great Britain and the Soviet Union to form the Grand Alliance. Later they defeated the Japanese and other Axis powers to end the war. -- Stephanie Tribbett, '09

Hargrave survived the attack on Pearl Harbor and the war, retiring from the Navy in 1957. In 1942 he landed a damaged airplane in what is now Indonesia, safely leading his crew through 600 miles of enemy territory. He was awarded the Silver Star for his heroism. -- smv

Sources: William L. O'Neill, A Democracy at War: America's Fight at Home and Abroad in World War II (New York: The Free Press, 1993), 1, 6; William J. Duiker and Jackson J. Spielvogel, World History, vol.2, Since 1400 (United States: Thomson Wadsworth, 2004), 699; Doug Denne, Hanover College Archivist, personal correspondence, 23 May 2008.

N.B. The text below is transcribed verbatim, including the occasional typographical error. William "Bubbles" Hargrave played on Hanover's football team. For a description of one of his games, see a 1937 Triangle article, available here.

[Charles Kemf?], "Bubbles Hargrave Describes Life In Air Corps at Hawaiian Island," Hanover College Triangle, 23 May 1941, 1, 4.

The following excerpts are taken from a letter received by Charles Kemf from William Hargrave (better known on the campus as Bubbles), Hanover '38, who is now in Hawaii, in the Naval Air Crops.

They are really working me now. Buck, seven days a week with one day off every fifth day. I'm usually so poohed by the time my day off rolls around that all I do is sleep and rest. For a couple of weeks there, I was flying from ten to fourteen hours a day. That's really a lot of time in the air for one day. We took off one morning at two-thirty, were in the air until about eleven, then we landed and refueled and went back out again. Flying is a lot of fun but it's getting more and more like work each day. I used to think I would never get tired of flying but I guess after so long a time any thing becomes work.

I have, however, had a couple of nice trips to a couple of these South Sea Islands. They were the kind you read about, only they aren't paradise. One of the trips was to Johnston Island, which is about 750 miles southwest of here. We flew down one day, stayed over night on a ship, and flew back the next. There is very little land above water down there, but the reefs and shoals lie for miles around the place. There isn't any sort of vegetation on the entire place, nothing but coral and sand. The birds, however, are thick and I believe they call them 'goona' birds. They are about the craziest-looking birds I've ever seen. They have pouches on their necks that they can inflate and deflate like a balloon. They live entirely off fish which are also plentiful.

A base is being established down there and when I was there about a hundred men were working. Only about three of those were white men, the rest were Chinese, Japanese and Hawaiian. Most of them hadn't shaved for months and they looked like characters out of a book. The beards, however, do protect them from the sun and wind. There isn't any water on the place either and they have to distill about a thousand gallons a day. It was real-above the water down there, but the ly an interesting place but I wouldn't want to be shipwrecked there, especially with no one there. Of course If Hedy LaMarr were there, it wouldn't be so bad.

My other trip was to French Frigate Shoals. It is about 450 miles northwest of Pearl Harbor and is very much like Johnston in that there is very little land above the water but many miles of reefs and shoals. Nothing is being built there and we went down to refuel from a submarine. We stayed over night again on a ship, and came back the next day. The birds at French Frigate are quite thick too, and they are some sort of gull. At least I'm sure they belong to the gull family. They are the most graceful things in the air that I've ever seen. On the ground, however, it's another story. They are quite large and waddle around like a duck. They have to run to take off and get into the air, just like a plane. While we were there quite a strong wind was blowing and when we went ashore we chased them to take off down wind. The older birds wouldn't try it, they would circle and get into the wind. A couple of the younger ones, however, did try to take off down wind and they fell all over themselves. They actually spun in and then rolled over a couple of times for good measure. Like the birds at Johnston they have to live entirely off fish.

I also had my first taste of sea turtle at French Frigate. Some of the men off the ship caught a couple on shore by flipping them over on their backs. One of them weighed about 350 pounds. There was really a lot of meat on that baby. We had plenty of tustle steak to eat and I thought it was delicious. Some of the fellows wouldn't eat it. I think I put away more than my share. It tasted a lot like beef.

I had to make a couple of trips out to the planes at French Frigate in a so-called whale boat. Boy, the sea was really rough, and we were tossed around like a feather. I was out in it a couple of hours and when I got back I was soaked from head to foot. It was so rough that the waves would come right over the bow of the boat and almost swamped up. We had a gasoline pump working all the time and we were still standing in about a foot of water. Some times I would look out one side and see nothing but the sky. It was fun but I was glad to get back to the ship and I wouldn't want to spend my hours in that sort of a boat in a very rough sea.

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