Eyewitness to a ‘Day of Infamy:’ Commemorating Pearl Harbor

Today marks the 76th anniversary of the bombing of the Pearl Harbor naval base by the Japanese Imperial Navy. In commemoration of this anniversary, Patri O’Gan shares some letters from the collections of the American History Museum written by a civilian, Beth Slingerland, as she watched the attack from her home in the hills above Pearl Harbor.


Handwritten air mail envelope

Envelope containing the first letter written by Beth Slingerland describing the attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base. Postmarked December 8, 1941.

Honolulu, [Territory of Hawaii]

Sunday Morning
Between 8-9 Am.
Under Attack by an Enemy – Japan

Dearest Mother and Dad,

How can I write at such a time? I have to do something because I can see the smoke pouring up into the air from Pearl Harbor and the sound of the guns and the bombs bursting in the water right before us keeps me in such a nervous state that I must do something. John is at Pearl Harbor. He left early this morning because he was supposed to go today—they have been rushing so. I know they have hit places there because I see so much, much smoke.


Beth was a teacher and lower school director at the Punahou School in Honolulu. Her husband, John, was a hammerhead crane operator working as a civilian employee at the naval base. During the surprise attack, on a previously quiet Sunday morning, nearly 200 Japanese planes flew over Pearl Harbor, dropping bombs and raining gunfire on the largely undefended American fleet.

The guns began some time ago but I thought they were our own usual gun fire. Then I just got nervous and went out to take a better look to discover all the smoke and just then great spouts of water began rising out of the ocean. . . . The great spouts rose all about some of our battle ships. . . . I turned on the radio just in time to hear that we were under attack by “the Enemy”. All I can think of is John down there where they are [attacking.] How do people face bravely the fact that their husbands are in places where they may be killed any day and I can’t get any news, of course, and I do not know how long it will be before I shall know anything. I love him so I can’t look into the future without him.


Balack and white photo of roiling smoke, people in foreground

Hickam Field, an American air base at Pearl Harbor, is shown under attack by the Japanese Imperial Navy on December 7, 1941. Japanese forces bombed and strafed Hickam Field in order to prevent an aerial retaliation by the American military. Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration (6641427).

A second wave of attack came shortly after the first, with roughly 170 Japanese planes converging on Pearl Harbor. By the end the Japanese had damaged or destroyed more than 18 American ships and over 300 American planes.

Another attack came and I watched it. My only comfort is being up here where I can see so much. Eight Japanese planes flew over the house on to Waikiki and out to sea. Their big red circles showed up so plainly. Lots of planes were high and the anti-aircraft tracer bullets are all over Pearl Harbor. . . . I can see our ships guarding the entrance to the Honolulu Harbor. At times the bombs fall about these ships. Right now things are more quiet but I can still feel the jar of the big guns. . . . I can see lots of smoke in back of the big hangers at [Hickam] Field. . . . Where I sit to write this I can look out all over the sea so I watch and write at the same time. No planes are in the sky right now. . . . What I thought were submarines seem to be cruisers and destroyers. The water is breaking high over them.

…More enemy planes have come since I wrote last. . . . Big fires burst out below and are still raging with great flames shooting up into the air. . . . We hear planes and then we see the tracer smoke puffs of the anti aircraft being fired from Pearl Harbor.


Although the entire attack lasted only a few hours, by the end almost 2,500 Americans had been killed and over 1,000 more had been wounded. Happily for Beth, her husband was not among those killed.

Capsized ship, smoke in foreground

The USS Oglala capsized at Pearl Harbor after being hit by Japanese aircraft, December 7, 1941. Smoke billows from other damaged and destroyed American ships in the background. Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration (296007).

…[At] about four-thirty or five…I heard the familiar sound of John’s [shoes] coming up our driveway and I do not ever remember hearing anything more welcome.

[John’s] experience had been very horrible and I imagine it will be a long time before he is back to his old self again. He heard the unusual explosions coming from Ford Island way, went out to see what was up and beheld the Japanese planes flying no more than 50 feet off the ground coming right before him. The [USS Oglala] was blown up right before his eyes and the men worked hard to get all the men off before she turned over on her side and sank. They were not entirely successful. . . . Then [the Japanese] got three battle ships and three cruisers, and some destroyers. John cannot bear the thought of seeing our beautiful big ships sent to the bottom with just funnels sticking out of the water. Later in the morning he was called to try to move the huge crane…just as more Japanese planes came. He ran to as much cover as he could find but it wasn’t enough for from the rear of the planes flying low they machine gunned at him and one young man. The bullets so close lent wings to their feet and they threw themselves over some sort of a high iron wall…so that they were between that and some cement. A piece of shrapnel came through a hole and scraped his side but not seriously, thank goodness. . . . He dug the shrapnel out of the cement after all was quiet and brought it home. I had no idea how jagged and heavy they would be.

They fought fires and did all kinds of things all day. The last big raid came at about twelve o’clock. His praise for the boys on the USS Pennsylvania knows no bounds. He said that they were at their posts so quick that he cannot even know now how they managed to do it. They had their [anti-aircraft guns] at work almost immediately.

The next day, on December 8, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress describing the attack and memorializing December 7, 1941, as “a date which will live in infamy.” Following his speech the United States officially declared war on Japan. Three days later Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. America had now officially entered World War II.

Blue, red and gold lapel pin with eagle

After the December 7, 1941, bombing of the military base at Pearl Harbor, Americans rallied around the war effort with the patriotic cry, “Remember Pearl Harbor.” Thousands of buttons or lapel pins were distributed to remind Americans of the tragic event and to solidify the war efforts.

The islands have been put under military rule. . . . Do not worry unduly for now things are really organized as they have not been and the whole island is on its toes. I am sure that the army and navy will handle the situation much better – now that they know the enemy has arrived.

I am so glad you are not here. It isn’t that I am afraid to be here but it is nice to know that you are safer where you are just now. . . . It will all end right I know, only it is hard to really know war has actually begun.

Much, much love to you all and have a Merry, Merry Christmas even if you do wish we were with you, as I know you do. We are together here and we love it here and this will all be over eventually.

Love from,


Family photo of older couple

Beth and John Slingerland in their home, about 1980. Photo courtesy of Bev Wolf.

The war would last almost four more years, involving over 30 countries and resulting in more than 50 million deaths. The Slingerlands remained in Hawaii during the war, with Beth continuing to teach at the now army-occupied school and John continuing to work at Pearl Harbor. After the war they moved to Washington state, where Beth became a well-known educator and pioneer in the field of dyslexia. She founded the Slingerland Institute for Literacy in 1977, which continues to train teachers around the world to work with students with dyslexia. Beth and John were happily married for 64 years until Beth’s death in 1989 at the age of 89. John passed away three years later at the age of 92.

Full transcriptions of Slingerland’s letters are available here and here. You may also see the original letters: see the first letter here and the second letter here.

Patri O’Gan is a project assistant in the Division of Armed Forces History at the American History Museum. This post was originally published by the museum’s blog, “O Say Can You See?”

Posted: 7 December 2017
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