Authored by Cuyler K. Otsuka
On Sunday, December 7, 1941, shortly before 8:00 a.m., Imperial Japanese airplanes approached the island of Oʻahu and began their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field, two United States military installations on the island. The alarm sounded at 8:05 a.m., and Engines 4 and 6 were promptly dispatched to Hickam Field to respond to the blazes and medical emergencies caused by gunfire and bombs (Bowen 1979, 126). As part of a “mutual aid pact,” the Honolulu Fire Department, a civilian fire department, assisted the United States military, and vice versa (Bowen 1979, 127).
Upon arrival to a smoldering, battered Hickam Field,
the 12 men of HFD Engines 4 and 6 suddenly found that they were the entire firefighting force available to handle the rescue, body recovery, and firefighting tasks. In the absence of any properly authorized military officers, Lt. [Frederick] Kealoha as commanding officer of the HFD’s first-due engine company assumed authority and responsibility for the operations. (Bowen 1979, 128)
Shortly thereafter, another wave of Imperial Japanese airplanes approached the island and began to open fire on Hickam Field. Firefighter Richard L. Young recounted, “For the next 15 minutes, hell rained down from the skies in the form of whistling bombs and screaming machine gun bullets, seemingly strafing everyone and everything in sight” (Bowen 1979, 129).
The second wave killed Captain John Carreira, Captain Thomas Samuel Macy, and Hoseman Harry Tuck Lee Pang (Hilgendorf 1991, 23; Henkels 1996). Lieutenant Frederick Kealoha, as well as Hosemen Moses Kalilikane, Solomon Naʻauao, Jr., John Gilman, Patrick McCabe, and George Correa were injured (Hilgendorf 1991, 23). The names of the three fallen firefighters and of four of the injured firefighters were preserved in the Honolulu Fire Department captain’s log on page 95. Today, the captain’s log is an irreplaceable primary source document from that “date which will live in infamy” (Roosevelt 1941). The captain’s log belongs to the Honolulu Fire Department Museum and is on display in the museum for the public to see. It reminds us of the stark contrast between the brutality of war and the civilian firefighters’ unwavering commitment to service. On that day, the Honolulu Fire Department performed medical rescue operations alongside nurses and civilian volunteers. The citizens of Oʻahu embodied the best of St. John’s University’s Vincentian values through their generosity of spirit and service to one another (St. John’s University 2020).
As a result of the extraordinary actions and circumstances of those Honolulu firefighters on December 7, 1941, the six wounded firefighters were awarded the Purple Heart Medal in June 1944 (Hilgendorf 1991, 23). However, due to an oversight, the three fallen firefighters did not receive Purple Heart Medals until December 7, 1984 (Hilgendorf 1991, 23). Together, these nine firefighters are the only civilian firefighters to ever have been awarded Purple Heart Medals for their service (Antone 2005). Two of the Purple Hearts are on loan to the Honolulu Fire Department Museum and are on display.
Antone, Rod. 2005. “Rescuing History: The Fire Department Needs Help Recovering Lost Pieces of Its Past.” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, December 24, 2005. http://archives.starbulletin.com/2005/12/24/news/story01.html.
Bowen, John E. 1979. “December 7, 1941—The Day the Honolulu Fire Department Went to War.” Hawaiian Journal of History 13: 126–35. http://hdl.handle.net/10524/551.
Henkels, Jack G. 1996. “Civilians Died on Dec. 7, Too.” Honolulu Star-Bulletin, December 7, 1996. http://archives.starbulletin.com/96/12/10/editorial/viewpoints.html.
Hilgendorf, Richard P. 1991. “Honolulu Fire Department at War.” Courier: Newsmagazine of the National Park Service, 1991.
Roosevelt, Franklin D. 1941. “Transcript of Joint Address to Congress Leading to a Declaration of War Against Japan.” Our Documents. December 8, 1941. https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=73&page=transcript.
St. John’s University. “Core Values.” 2020. https://www.stjohns.edu/about/history-and-facts/core-values.