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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Finally, the onslaught slowed. The planes receded into the horizon and the firemen warily crept from their makeshift shelters. They immediately ran to aid the injured and took stock of the dead. Three members of the Honolulu Fire Department were dead: Captain Thomas Macy of Engine 4 and Captain John Carreira of Engine 1 were killed by a Japanese bomb that fell through a hangar roof while they were battling flames inside; Hoseman Harry Tuck Lee Pang of Engine 6 was killed by a machine gun burst from a Japanese fighter plane. Kealoha and Hoseman Moses Kalilikane were critically injured. Three other firefighters were seriously injured.

The firefighting force spent their first few minutes tending to the injured firemen and soldiers. Around them their fire apparatus had taken a similar beating from the aerial assault. Shrapnel pierced Engine 1’s chemical tank, Engine 6 had suffered countless bullet holes and the hose wagon was in flames. The remaining apparatus suffered everything from shrapnel hits to flat tires and radiators gushing steam from bullet holes.

As the wounded were cared for, several hoses were pulled into position and again water hit the flames. Then, a third attack commenced.

Running for their lives, with machine gun bullets snapping at their heels, firemen dove for cover. Luckily, the latest attack was over quickly and emergency work was renewed. This time, the efforts of the firemen and soldiers was bolstered by civilian volunteers who had descended on the airfield. Firemen scrambled to repair their rigs and get them back into service – bars of brown soap and wads of toilet paper were plugged into leaking radiator holes.

A real fire attack finally commenced. Three pumpers dropped hard suctions into the large bomb crater and drafted water to feed the attack lines. Hoses moved in on burning aircraft, holding the spreading walls of fire and protecting other aircraft and hangars yet to catch fire. With limited water, no master streams would be available and the fires were fought using 1½-inch hoses. Realizing that Pearl Harbor had also been attacked, the proof filling the sky in the near distance, Honolulu firemen knew there would be no reinforcements. They had to do the best they could with what they had.

The five two-piece companies on scene, with depleted manning due to deaths and injuries, pressed on at Hickam Field. All off-duty Honolulu firefighters were recalled to duty to man the remaining five pumpers and five hose wagons left to cover the rest of the city. Nine commercial trucks were pressed into service as auxiliary fire units with civilian volunteers under the command of a Honolulu fireman.

The department’s alarm bureau quickly became swamped with alarms from across the city: live electrical wires down; bomb strikes to buildings; several serious building fires; blazing gas storage tanks. The number of alarm boxes being transmitted was so great Chief William Blaisdell ordered that only phone alarms with specific addresses would be dispatched.

The department continued battling fires and responding to emergencies without rest until Tuesday morning, when the department began giving each man four hours off. A temporary work schedule was worked out that included an automatic recall whenever the air raid sirens sounded.

The entire Honolulu Fire Department showed extraordinary courage, fortitude and professionalism during the attacks that Sunday morning and the days afterwards. The men of the department were presented a letter of commendation from the military governor “for their gallant actions during the attack on Oahu, December 7, 1941.” This was epitomized by the six Honolulu firefighters who were later awarded Purple Hearts, commendations ordinarily reserved for military personnel wounded in battle. On June 13, 1944, a ceremony was held in the office of Lieutenant General Robert C. Richardson Jr., U.S. Army. The general awarded the Order of the Purple Heart to Lieutenant (now Captain) Frederick Kealoha and Hosemen George Correa, John A. Gilman, Moses Kalilikane, Patrick J. McCabe and Solomon H. Naauao Jr.

The three Honolulu firefighters killed on Dec. 7, 1941, finally received recognition for their heroism on Dec. 7, 1984, during a ceremony aboard the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial. Captain John Carreira, Captain Thomas S. Macy and Hoseman Harry T.L. Pang were awarded their Purple Hearts.

These nine men are the only civilian firefighters ever to be given this honor.

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