When we think of the attack on Pearl Harbor, we mostly think of the events that took place at Pearl Harbor, but that attack was felt far and wide. I’m sure there are many stories, But this one struck me as particularly poignant. The Japanese bombing of the US naval base in Pearl Harbor 75 years ago sent a seismic shock around the world. Nicholas Best charts how stunned onlookers across the planet…from Dirk Bogarde to Adolf Hitler to Mao Zedong…reacted to the news. Their reactions might have been interesting, but I was moved by the thoughts and reactions of Joan Fawcett, who was simply a passenger on the Dutch ship Jägersfontein. Joan was just 21 years old that December 7th, and she was traveling to India from San Francisco. After several days at sea, she was looking forward to arriving in Honolulu soon after breakfast. Joan didn’t want to miss a moment as the ship approached the Hawaiian island of Oahu from the south.
Many other passengers were up early too. They were all enjoying the view of Diamond Head as they prepared to enter harbor. To add to the fun, the US navy was carrying out some sort of naval exercise ahead of them. As Joan later recalled: “I noticed a few puffs of grey smoke in the sky, just over the harbor, and as they seemed strange clouds I asked the boys what explanation they could give and we decided that they were the puffs from anti-aircraft fire. By this time there were many grey spots and soon we could hear the report of the guns. We thought it was just a practice maneuver and a welcome salute for us. By nine o’clock we had had breakfast and were all up on deck watching the planes fly over. We did see things drop into the water, and one only 50 yards away, but thought nothing more of it. Later we heard eight bombs were aimed at our ship. We made a beautiful target for we were entering the harbor, and being in the mined area could not swerve left or right in the cleared channel. We were thoroughly enjoying the display.” The ship’s agent hurried aboard as soon as they docked. He told the passengers it was no exercise. The US Navy’s Pacific fleet up the coast at Pearl Harbor was being attacked by the Japanese. Within hours, news of the outrage was racing around the world, leaving people shocked, dismayed…and, in some cases, delighted…in its wake.
Thinking about Joan Fawcett, I have wondered how she must have felt when she found out that they were sailing right into a battle. She may not have known it at all until the agent rushed onboard to try to pull people to safety. Imagining the awe of the beautiful harbor, and then having the images dissolving into horror, fear, and death. Now she finds herself running for her life alongside all the other passengers, praying that they can get to safety before one of those bombs hits them. There is no place that is safe to go. It was chaos…everywhere. She and the rest of the passengers are caught in the middle of their worst nightmare, and they can never get those pictures out of their heads. Most of the people alive then, and anyone who has ever studied the attack, could never get that picture out of their head.