Sunday, December 06, 2009


So you think you know what war is like? I'm here to suggest that until you have actually been in combat or have suffered through a bombing by a foreign power you're just guessing. Follow along closely as you get a glimpse into the mind of a seven year old and see how the horrors of war influenced his thinking for many years.

It was another beautiful Sunday morning in Hawaii. My Dad, Mom and I were getting ready to go to Mass at St. Augustine's Catholic Church in Waikiki. We had been living in our new home on Ala Wai Blvd. in Honolulu, Hawaii for about five years. It was just two long blocks from Waikiki beach. Years later I can remember my Dad regaling us with stories about how everyone thought he was completely nuts for buying the property where the house was located because there was nothing around there except ponds with ducks and geese. He bought the house AND the 5,000 square feet of land for one dollar a square foot - $5,000.00. That was an enormous sum in the mid nineteen thirties but it proved to be another one of my Dad's really smart moves.

We had a Philco radio on the bedside table next to my parent's bed. It looked like a small brown archway and it had the usual Sunday morning claptrap going on about a host of inane activities for that day. My Dad was sitting in the yard using a Sunbeam electric "Shavemaster" that was hooked up to a long electrical extension that was plugged in inside the house. I kept hearing these explosions coming from the southwest side of the island but they sounded like noises we usually heard when there were maneuvers going on at the Army Air Force Base at Hickam Field. All of a sudden the radio announcer started yelling: "The Japs are bombing Pearl Harbor! The Japs are bombing Pearl Harbor!" I ran outside just in time to see a Japanese Zero drop a bomb two blocks from our house. It landed in the middle of Lewers Road and in addition to leaving a huge crater about twenty feet deep and completely across the street, it left shrapnel marks on all the buildings around which were there for years. Amazingly, no one was killed but a couple of people inside the apartment buildings were injured. Occasionally we would take tourists around the area and show them the shrapnel marks particularly on a pink building that had a stucco finish.

Here's a little side issue. Have you ever heard about the Mitsubishi Airplane factory? No? Just the automobile manufacturer you say? Well, guess what: The Mitsubishi A6M plane (nicknamed the "Zeke", the Allied code name, or the "Zero", the popular name) was manufactured by the Mitsubishi Airplane Factory in Japan with a design history starting in 1937. It was the first carrierborne fighter aircraft to supercede all other land based planes. Can you figure out why I don't want to own a vehicle with the brand name "Mitsubishi"?

The rest of the morning was pure shock. Since the adults were frightened all the kids were panic-stricken! We were glued to the radio in our front room. It was a big Philco console and was hooked up to an aerial on the roof that gave us very good short wave reception, even in the daytime. In front of our house was a canal (Ala Wai is "water way" in Hawaiian) that emptied all of the rainwater from the mountains into the Pacific Ocean. I remember standing in the front door clutching my mother's dress as we watched a house burning on the other side of the canal. It was a very big house and painted that dull red color just like the barns you see around the farmland countryside. It was burning and large billows of black smoke were pouring out of all the windows. You could see people running around the outside of the house. They looked like ants.

We didn't know it at the time but many years later we learned that most of the bombs dropped on civilian targets went there simply because the imperfect release mechanism on the Zero often got stuck and the pilot would fly around jerking frantically on the handle to get rid of the bomb. Not paying any attention to where he was flying except to keep the aircraft up in the air, many bombs were dropped by accident simply because the pilot knew he could never land on the carrier with the bomb hanging down as it would blow up the plane with him in it the moment he landed.

Later on that day we heard over the radio that martial law had been declared and anyone on the street after nine-o'clock at night would be shot. The entire island was forced into a complete blackout to prevent enemy planes from using the lights as markers for bombing. Soon after that my Dad was busy building covers for every one of the windows. They slanted out from the house wall above the windows and had to be painted black on the inside. They only came down halfway on each window so that you could leave the top half of the window open for ventilation. However, the glass on the bottom part of the windows had to be painted black so that no light could escape. You could open the windows anytime you wanted as long as no lights in the room were on. You also had to have covers put on your automobile headlights that kept the lights from shining up. This was enforced until the end of the war. We didn't get the black paint off of all of our windows for several months after the end of the war. I can remember how relieved I was to see the light streaming in the windows of my bedroom. It was like we had been let out of jail.

There was a reason for these rules. Everyone in the Hawaiian Islands was petrified for months that the Japanese were coming back with an invasion force. Many years later we learned how Admiral Yamamoto tried for many months to convince the politicians that the best time to invade the Islands would be while the bombing of Pearl Harbor was going on. He wanted to bring along three shiploads of troops, probably about seven thousand seasoned combat soldiers, with the carrier task force and land them on the beaches around the island of Oahu while the air raid took place. Fortunately, he was unsuccessful in his endeavors or I'd probably be speaking Japanese today if I was still alive.

From then on it was a life controlled by the war. Everyone was required by law to carry a gas mask. It was slung around your shoulders and carried wherever you went. You had a better chance of walking around with no clothes on and not being arrested as long as you were carrying your gas mask. Air Raid "Wardens" were appointed and each one took care of an area that included a number of blocks. Until Katrina destroyed all of our pictures, I had several photos of my best friend, Pat Dunn, and me when we made our first communion wearing the white shirt and pants and the ubiquitous gas mask. I also had a huge wooden box of the front page of the Honolulu Advertiser and the Star Bulletin newspapers from December 7, 1941 to August 31, 1945. One of my students and I were working on selling them and I had them in my studio.

For the duration of the war the air raid wardens walked around everyone's house at night checking to see if any light was escaping from the house, If it was, you got a ticket and had to go to court to prove that it was accident besides paying a big fine. If you broke the blackout law more than two times, supposedly you went to jail. Everything was enforced by a huge military presence wherever you went. Occasionally there would be a "practice" air raid and gas attack.

The wardens would put on their gas masks at a certain predetermined time and then start throwing tear gas grenades all around their area. If you didn't put on the gas mask it was pretty severe because it really did cause a lot of respiratory problems as well as a lot of tears coming from the eyes. This happened several times a year during the war.

We still went to the beach to go swimming but that was not allowed for several weeks until massive walls of barbed wire protected all the beaches. To get to the ocean you had to walk through ziz-zag corridors in the barbed wire. This condition was maintained until August of 1945 when the war with Japan ended. Everywhere you went on the island there were military police (M.P.'s) riding around in jeeps and doing their best to keep order, particularly with the huge influx of servicemen. As with most populations, the servicemen in general were despised because they disrupted your way of life. Very little thought was given to the fact that they were on their way to die to keep us free.

As a consequence, my Dad built up Frank Owens Studios to the point where by 1946, when I
started teaching piano in his studios, he had 15 instructors working Monday through Saturday
from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. In addition, he, my mother and I were teaching. For many years the
enrollment for the studios was over 500 a month. By the time I was ten I guess I was bugging
him so much that he started taking me to the store on Saturdays. Within a few weeks I was
working behind the counter packaging things that people bought and making change.

During the entire war and for another thirty years afterward, my Dad's music stores were
exceptionally busy. Servicemen from all over the country were coming into Honolulu because
they were going through Army basic training at Scofield Barracks. Once there, they knew that
they were going to the South Pacific to fight the Japanese military and there was a chance they
might not come back. So they tried to cram into three months all the things they had thought
about doing but hadn't. They took piano lessons, guitar lessons, they bought sheet music and
harmonicas and records and other things too numerous to mention.

In spite of trying to live a normal life, it just wasn't possible. Incessant reminders of the war were everywhere. One of the really bad things was probably the air raid sirens that went off once a week. They had to be tested regularly in case they were needed but it was frightening for a few moments until you realized it was the weekly test. Even worse than that was the nighttime air raids. Radar was in its infancy and at least two or three times a month, anytime the operators saw a flock of birds they were sure we were being attacked again and the sirens would go off and the sixteen-inch anti-aircraft guns would go off. Sixteen inch! That's a shell that's a regular twelve-inch ruler plus another half in diameter. It was HUGE. And it made a huge noise when it fired a 1.25 TON shell.

Since Fort Derussy was just two blocks away and the guns were on the corner closest to us, they literally shook the entire neighborhood every time they were fired. The whole house would shake, I would make a mad dash from my bedroom to my parents bedroom, crawl into their bed in between them and shake like a leaf wondering if we were being attacked again.

This would go on until finally the sirens would signal the all clear and the tension would melt out of you like perspiration running down your back. Often times, I would go back to sleep there and not get up until my Dad got up very early in the morning.

For many years the sound of a siren would send a chill up and down my back with the hair on the back of my neck rising up. I can remember hunting for rabbits with my beagle on the batture in Waggaman, LA around 1970. Suddenly an air raid siren went off. It was so startling and frightening that I was sure World War Three had started. Turns out it was a monthly test of the system to make sure it worked. Living in New Orleans, working at night and often times being asleep when the early morning test was going on I don't recall hearing it too many times. You can probably understand that I was one of the first to be highly in favor of the new sirens for all emergency vehicles except for the fire department. It was a long time coming as far as I was concerned and a very welcome change.

My thoughts of the war have never really left me as I have been continually reminded of them by the constant wars going on all around us. Right after World War Two ended the Korean War started - please remember that we're not supposed to call it a "war" because we never declared war on North Korea - it's the Korean "Conflict". Is that another sign of the long-term stupidity of everyone in Congress? Anyway, Wheeler Air Force Base, located on the west side of the island near the town of Wahiawa was where my high school girlfriend, Sonia Poland lived.

Her father, Captain Roger Poland was in the U.S. Air Force. It was called the Army Air Force at the beginning of the war. She had a twin sister named Sharon and an older sister named Patricia. Her mother was the secretary for an orthopedic surgeon at Tripler Army General Hospital that had 3,000 beds during WWII. It was upgraded to 4,000 beds during the Vietnam War. She was responsible for helping me volunteer to get in to entertain the troops just about every week during the Korean War. A couple of orderlies would move a piano on wheels into a ward and I would play a few tunes for the wounded soldiers and then the orderlies would move the piano to another ward and I would play again for a while. The sight of our troops with lost arms, legs and eyesight was pretty gruesome but I put up with it to try and give something back to the troops for what they have always done for us. The draft board chased me next and won then came the Cuban missile crisis, then Vietnam. My memories of war are made even more vivid as we battle terrorism and those who believe we all ought to be Islamic or dead. Unless you've been through it I doubt you can understand the whole matter. Needless to say, war IS hell and it leaves its mark on every human being subjected to the whole process. Like just about everyone else I've ever met, we all hope the wars will stop but there really isn't too much chance for that. Your chances of working hard to stop wars are much better if you have experienced something like the attack on Pearl Harbor. Otherwise it really doesn't mean much.

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