When he heard explosions outside his home on the north rim of Pearl Harbor, 71 years ago this week, young Walter T. Oka’s first thought was: “The Army was mad at the Navy.”
He rushed outside to see what was going on, and continued to believe the attack on the Pacific Fleet moored at Pearl Harbor was a training exercise until he spotted “the meatballs” — the colloquial term for Japan’s rising sun insignia — on the attacking planes.
Oka was 13-and-a-half years old, and knew that in 1938, the Army Air Corps had launched a mock surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
Today, at age 84 and as mentally sharp as the auditorium full of Southeastern University students he addressed in mid-November, he chuckles at his mistaking Japan’s sneak attack for an Army exercise, and his family’s foolishness in watching the attack outside of their home instead of taking cover.
Beginning his lecture with a history lesson, Oka said that toward the end of 1940, a decision was made to consolidate America’s entire Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. The move was opposed by Admiral James Richardson, commander of the Pacific Fleet.
He took his concerns to President Roosevelt, who responded by replacing Richardson with Admiral husband Kimmel, who also feared that Japan would attack Pearl Harbor.
The Peruvian ambassador to Japan warned his American colleagues that he heard about plans for a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. His warnings were ignored, as were Kimmel’s concerns.
Minutes before the first wave of Japanese planes attacked from the northwest, a radar installation at the naval base picked up 130 blips of approaching aircraft, and that fact was reported to a second lieutenant on duty that Sunday morning.
He replied that an incoming flight of American bombers was expected that day, and said to ignore the blips.
“They had a lot of warnings,” Oka said. “Somehow they ignored them.”
The first wave of the attack, which began at 7:40 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, was such a total surprise that the Americans did not have a chance to put their anti-aircraft guns into service, Oka said. To the best of his knowledge, the only Japanese planes lost in the initial attack were those that ran out of fuel.
A second wave arrived an hour later, coming from the northeast. This time, defensive fire came from anti-aircraft guns and machine guns. Two machine gun rounds landed on the roof of Oka’s home.
“You just stood there, shocked, looking at the whole thing,” he recalled.
Oka compares watching the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, to seeing the Twin Towers collapse on Sept. 11, 2001.
“All of a sudden, I heard this tremendous explosion. You could feel the concussion.” It was the USS Arizona, sunk when its ammunition magazine was struck.
“Battleship Row” was the main target of the Japanese attack, even though the World War I-era craft were considered by many to be obsolete in the combat environment of World War II, Oka said.
The attackers did not target nearby submarines or fuel storage.
Oka’s older brothers joined the armed forces soon after Pearl Harbor Day, and he joined after graduating from high school, just as the war was coming to an end.
Like many Japanese Americans, he was assigned interpreter duties, including the interrogation of Japanese prisoners of war.
(S. L. Frisbie is retired. On meeting him at the entrance to the auditorium, Oka asked him if he were a Pearl Harbor veteran. Frisbie replied that he was a veteran of two years in the active Army and 30 years in the Florida National Guard, but was not at Pearl Harbor. He did not tell Oka that he was not quite 11 months old on Pearl Harbor Day.)