Fire History: Dec. 7, 1941: A Day of Infamy And FIRE

Sunday morning, 0800 hours in Hawaii. The day shift was starting in Honolulu firehouses on Dec. 7, 1941. The sun was shining; the palms were swaying, another day in paradise.Lieutenant Frederick Kealoha answered the ringing telephone in the quarters of...


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Sunday morning, 0800 hours in Hawaii. The day shift was starting in Honolulu firehouses on Dec. 7, 1941. The sun was shining; the palms were swaying, another day in paradise.Lieutenant Frederick Kealoha answered the ringing telephone in the quarters of Engine 6. He quickly sounded the house gong – Engine 6, first due at Hickam Field, was going to war. At the same time, off-duty Fireman Anthony Lopez was on his way to church when a low-flying plane with rising sun insignias flashed by. He thought it was all part of another practice exercise. There had been many the past several months.

Later, during the service, he heard the sirens of fire apparatus pass the church; a short while later, more rigs screamed by. He knew it was a second alarm, a big fire. He left church and headed home to grab his gear. On his car radio the music turned to news. It was an attack. Enemy planes were attacking Oahu. Planes were bombing Pearl Harbor. Then the radio went dead.

As Engine 6 raced to the airfield, the firefighters on the back step could see towering columns of roiling smoke with flames leaping hundreds of feet into the clear-blue sky. Also in the sky were puffs of black smoke – anti-aircraft shells bursting in the distance as American military forces tried to fight back. The frequency of anti-aircraft fire slowed, causing the firefighters to think the attack may be over. The engine pressed on through a sea of parked cars and staring civilians cluttering the small, two-lane road. Drivers pulled over to watch as the panorama of war blossomed before their eyes.

Reaching the main gate, the men of Engine 6 were relieved that the bombing, strafing and anti-aircraft return fire had stopped, but were awed by what they saw. An underground gas main had been hit and was spewing flames dozens of feet into the air right near the front gate. As they passed the column of flame the bigger picture began to come into focus. Dead, dying and wounded military personnel lay everywhere, a large barracks struck by a bomb was burning fiercely. Across the road, aircraft hangars and a quarter-mile-long line of parked planes were also blazing.

Arriving at the fire station, as per their mutual aid response, the firefighters saw one of the Hickam Field fire engines had been strafed on the apron, its driver dead at the wheel. The other engine was still inside. Now joined by Engine 4, they found they were the only firefighting force available to handle the multiple fires, rescue efforts and body recoveries surrounding them. With no other authority, military or otherwise, Kealoha assumed command. The crew of Engine 1, who had responded from downtown Honolulu, joined them as Kealoha and his men sized-up their situation and sprang into action.

During the first wave of the attack, a bomb had struck the airfield’s water main, leaving all the hydrants out of service. Nearby, a huge bomb crater was rapidly filling with water and Kealoha decided to try drafting from the crater to get some water on the fires. Men were stretching hoselines, positioning rigs and fighting fires as the second wave of Japanese planes appeared from the south, swooping down over Diamond Head and racing across Waikiki Beach. Fire officers ordered their men to take cover as the planes swarmed in.

The Imperial Japanese Navy had sent another wave of carrier-based fighters, dive bombers and bombers to again attack “Battleship Row” – the U.S. Navy fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor, Ford Island, Hickam Field, Wheeler Field and several other targets.

For the next 15 minutes, all hell rained down on the Honolulu firemen and the remaining military scattered across the airfield. Bombs whistled in, shaking the ground as they detonated, one after another. Streams of machine gun bullets screamed from the sky, stitching death across the smoke-filled fireground. Shrapnel ripped through the air, tearing at those huddled on the ground trying to make themselves invisible to the pilots and machine gunners above.

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