Editor’s Note: Gladys Kamakakuokalani Ainoa Brandt was the first Native Hawaiian principal of the Kamehameha Schools, an institution that she would later help reform as a co-signatory of the famous “Broken Trust” essay that led to the breakup of the Bishop Estate board and shakeup of one of the most powerful landowners in Hawaii. A leader in the Hawaiian renaissance movement, she was instrumental in founding the University of Hawaii’s Hawaiian Studies Center. She was a member of the UH Board of Regents and a trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
She prepared this speech in 2001 with the help of Dr. Anthony Marsella, now a professor emeritus with the UH Department of Psychology. It was never delivered, and over time was forgotten. Marsella, who became close friends with Brandt over the years, saved it and recently shared it with Civil Beat.
“It’s an important day in Hawaii’s history,” Marsella says. “Memories of someone who was there at that time should be shared as a reminder of the impact of Pearl Harbor on Hawaii and on the world.”
It was a peaceful Sunday morning in Honolulu, like so many others before it.
The sun was rising and a soft breeze was sweeping through the city. The streets were quiet and empty, with only an occasional passing car or truck marring the silence. My mother and I had gone to the bakery early to pick up a birthday cake.
On the way home, we decided to stop at Fort Street to do some window shopping. As we walked the deserted streets, I heard the sound of distant rumbles, and I wondered to myself what they could be. Within moments, the distant rumbles were accompanied by the sound of sirens. I wondered to myself if there was an explosion or fire, or whether the military was practicing maneuvers.
A single motorcycle rider drove down the street and I waved him down and asked him if he knew what was happening. What were the noises and why were the sirens on? He said breathlessly, “Big fire at Pearl Harbor, big fire at Pearl Harbor!” And then he drove off quickly, leaving me still unaware of the momentous events that had already begun.
The rumbling noises and sirens continued as my mother and I drove to our home in Kalihi. There were airplanes in the sky. As I turned down our street, people were already gathering on the sidewalks and I sensed that something important was happening. We opened our car doors and began walking toward some of our neighbors when a low-flying airplane suddenly dove toward us.
All of us stood in silence, looking up at the plane at it came closer and closer toward us, transfixed by the site. The plane stopped its dive perhaps 50 yards above our heads and flew makai, toward the ocean, but not before we were able to see the rising sun painted on it white body. I thought to myself that the Navy must really be trying for realism during its maneuvers.
But my foolish musings, and my ignorance of what was happening, soon ended as people on our street began yelling: “Pearl Harbor’s been bombed, Pearl Harbor’s been bombed. It’s on the radio, it’s on the radio.”
My mother and I ran toward our house into the arms of my young daughter who stood waiting on the porch, a look of bewilderment and confusion on her young face. “Hush, hush, child,” I told her, even though she had not said a word. We turned on the radio and heard the announcers voice: “Pearl Harbor has been bombed. This is the real McCoy! Repeat! Pearl Harbor has been bombed. This is the real McCoy! Pearl Harbor has been bombed!”
The announcer’s voice trailed off in the distance as I tried to grasp the meaning of what was happening. War had come to Hawaii! We were under attack. And that peaceful Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, a day that had begun like so many others in Honolulu, would forever be remembered as the day that changed our lives, a day unlike any other we had ever known.
Today, 60 years later, we will gather in memory of those events which occurred on December 7, 1941, and in tribute to the many people whose lives were lost on that day, and in the seemingly endless days of war that followed. All of us who are here, and all of us who were alive at that time, can remember clearly where we were and what we were doing on that day. And this is as it should be, for few other days in the 20th Century have etched the human mind and spirit so profoundly and so permanently.
For each of us, the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the war that followed had a different meaning and implication. But though the effects of the war were different for each of us, they were nevertheless equally profound. For those of us who had been born and raised in Hawaii, the bombing of Pearl Harbor assumed a special meaning. We sensed that the beauty of our land, and the idyllic way of life we had known would be forever changed. We sensed that the events of distant lands — events over which we had no control — would soon determine our lives. We sensed the passing of the old, and the coming of the new, and it all happened so quickly, so suddenly, so unexpectedly.
The comfort and security of our daily routines in Hawaii soon yielded to a dizzy pace of change. Martial law was imposed, familiar sites, like Punahou School, were turned over to the military as part of the war effort, rationing increased, volunteering became a way of life. We all learned to live with less, and we did so willingly because it was our contribution to the victory that we knew would come.
There was a recklessness that came upon all of our lives, a willingness to live faster and more intensely than before. Perhaps it was the uncertainty. Or perhaps it was the sudden exposure to ways of life we had never known. We hid our fears beneath new dances, new clothes, new ideas, and a new willingness to test the limits of our times. We listened to the radio, we read the newspapers, and we shared the victories and defeats of our troops as if we were with them in battle – cheering and crying, ecstatic and fatigued.
In the days that followed Pearl Harbor, we came together as a community — strangers and natives, haoles and kamaainas, civilian and military — each doing what they could do, aware now of the significance of what had transpired in the early dawn.
I remember those days so clearly. Even amidst the uncertainty, there was a special satisfaction to them. I cannot remember anyone saying so, but I think that we all knew that Pearl Harbor would always be the place we would mark in our lives as the end of one era, and the beginning of another.
I write to you today, 60 years later, a witness to those times of desperation and joy, of sadness and hope, of fear and courage. Nothing in my long life has ever been comparable to the experience of those days. And I am grateful that fate gave me the privilege and the honor of witnessing and experiencing that tragedy that soon became our nation’s finest hour. That’s how I remember Pearl Harbor.