From Paradise to War Zone

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Four days after Independence Day 1940, at age 21, my father, Herb Gilmore, enlisted for a three-year term as a private in the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army Air Corps’ Hawaiian Department. One of 53,500 men who enlisted that year in the Air Corps, he chose Hawaii because he thought it would be lovely.

Hickams barracks in flames - Herb Gilmore

This iconic photo shows Hickam’s brand-new barracks in flames after the Japanese attack. The truck at the base of the flag pole belongs to Herb’s company, members of which were fixing a damaged cable. The tattered flag in the photo later flew above the United Nations charter meeting in San Francisco, over the Big Three conference at Potsdam, and above the White House on August 14, 1945, when the Japanese surrendered. (Signal Corps photo from Herb’s collection)

Herb left for basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, later in July. After that, he shipped out to San Francisco. From there, he took an army transport ship on August 15, 1940, bound for Oahu, Hawaiian for “gathering place.” After climbing the gangplank onto the ship, he entered a troop hole in the ship’s hold crowded with men on bunks stacked atop one another at two-foot intervals, a multi-decker sandwich of men and bunks. Once underway, the swaying ship sickened most of the men, whose vomit and body odor stunk up the place.

The ship rounded Diamond Head on August 21 and docked near the Aloha Tower in Honolulu Harbor. Herb arrived to a typical Hawaiian welcome. A rousing march blared from the Royal Hawaiian Band, serenading the men, and Hawaiian girls placed fragrant leis around their necks. Native boys in swim trunks splashed into the harbor, diving for coins the soldiers threw into it.

As Herb formed ranks dockside with the other GIs, beads of sweat glowed on his forehead from the sticky tropical air. Small bursts of sea breeze relieved the heat. While anticipating the attractions of “The Paradise of the Pacific,” Herb spent 20 days in quarantine at Fort Armstrong, a coastal artillery post on Honolulu Harbor. He then reported to Hickam Field, next to Pearl Harbor.

The army conditioned Herb, pushing his strength. He learned to shoot, pitch a tent, and wash himself the army’s way―from top to bottom. He marched in close order drills and learned to use a gas mask and patrol inside a building. After additional training, he moved on to the 307th Signal Aviation Company, a soldier, and part of one of the largest gatherings of U.S. troops anywhere in late 1940.

Hickam Field’s panking

Hickam Field’s panking new barracks still burning after the attack, right, and two of the hangars burning, left. (Signal Corps photo from Herb’s collection)

In a state of “limited emergency,” Hawaii was yielding to its military role in the Pacific. Warships crowded Pearl Harbor. Tanks, armored cars, and jeeps rumbled through Honolulu’s streets where barefoot children walked. Airplanes on military missions roared above. Poised sentries guarded important plants, buildings, and other sites as carefree tourists lounged on beaches. Newspapers reported a possible air attack.

Herb wrote to his girl back home: “We are in the tropic of Cancer, which is about 20° above the equator. The only relief we have is the cool breeze from the ocean. If it wasn’t for that, it would be hot as h. Above all, it is a lovely place, and I wish you were here.”

At Waikiki beach, Herb and his buddies swam, relaxed, and ogled women as beach umbrellas flapped in the balmy breeze. Smiling Hawaiian youths―“beach boys”―massaged coconut oil into the pale bodies of tourists and film stars. Others, in the water, helped mainlanders learn to surf. Spanning the beach, Waikiki’s cottages, hot dog stands, and curio shops huddled as strolling tourists browsed for souvenirs. Honky-tonks, tattoo parlors, shooting galleries, barber shops, pinball machines, massage parlors, and photo booths lay like mouse traps, awaiting the GIs.

Herb’s post, Hickam Field, bustled in the 1940s as the largest army air corps station, with approximately 100 officers and 3,000 men. It cut a swath of paving and concrete into the jungle and sugar cane fields from which it was carved. Only a chain-link fence divided Hickam, known as “Bomberland,” from Pearl Harbor Naval Base, its neighbor to the north. Hickam had built a $1 million barracks, the single largest structure of its kind on any on any U.S. military post largest in 1940. But before moving into the new barracks, Herb and other enlisted men lived in 50-man tents in a temporary “Tent City” built near the airfield’s hangar line. The ambient air smelled like aviation fuel. In Tent City, the men used a separate kitchen, mess hall area, and dayroom tents, where they listened to the radio, nestled in easy chairs, and flicked the ashes from their army-issued cigarettes into smoking stands.

In December 1940, Herb proposed to his girl by letter and she accepted. Writing to her a month later, he complained, “Nothing ever happens here—just the same routine every day.” But by mid-1941, Herb predicted, “The war will start shortly.”

On December 7, 1941, Ernest Galeassi, a private in Herb’s company, got up, shaved, dressed, and went to mass in Hickam’s gym, then to the chow hall for breakfast. He walked back to the barracks and sat down on its front steps, looking across the airfield. He soon spied planes almost grazing the barracks’ roof, planes marked with the red rising sun of Japan, dubbed the “meatball” by the GIs. As the planes zoomed overhead, Galeassi yelled inside to those in the barracks, “We’re being attacked!” An ear-splitting boom sounded from Pearl Harbor as black smoke billowed over the base. Hickam’s air raid siren blared.

The war had begun.

Liz Glimore William




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About Author

Liz Gilmore Williams worked as a writer and editor for more than 20 years in Washington, D.C., for two offices of the U.S. Congress and other organizations. Her essay, “April Love,” won an award in 2014 for creative nonfiction from the Virginia Writers Club and was published by the Indiana Voice Journal in February 2015. That and two other essays have been published in online literary magazines. Others of her articles have appeared in Living (@Sun City Carolina Lakes), an award-winning magazine. Her first book, No Ordinary Soldier: My Father’s Two Wars, was published in December 2016.

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