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In Their Own Words: Letters From Pearl Harbor, a Day That Will Live in Infamy

Read three letters from that fateful day 80 years ago

nineteen forty one photo taken at pearl harbor with an american ship burning from the attack

Associated Press

American ships burn during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in this Dec. 7, 1941, file photo.

Many of those who witnessed Pearl Harbor recorded their thoughts in letters home. And worried families stateside reached out to sailors stationed there that terrible morning. Here are some dramatic examples preserved by historian Andrew Carroll and the Center for American War Letters project at Chapman University.

Ensign William Czako, Fremont, Ohio, writing to his family as the attack roared around him.

Our anti-aircraft guns are yammering and every so often a bomb strikes so close as to rock this ship. Again a bomb. We’re helpless down here in the Forward Engine Room because our main engines are all tore down. We’re trying to get underway if possible. We were just struck by a bomb near the bow. We’re fighting back as much as possible because we have no power to load our guns, no power circuits to fire them. It is all being done by hand.

This seems to you like a nonchalant letter, but it’s the straight dope. There is only a handful of us down here as most of our men are ashore on liberty. They really caught us sleeping this time. For a ship being in a Navy Yard for overhaul, we’re putting up a good fight ... Those bombs are getting closer — God grant that they do not hit that loaded oil tanker that is lying right across from us. Ten million gallons of fuel oil would bathe this ship in an inferno of fire ...

I don’t know why I am writing this because if we are hit with a bomb here — they won’t find enough of me and the rest — let alone this letter.

(Eventually, the crew of the New Orleans was able to fix the damage done during the attack and put the ship into service. Czako survived the war.)

 Lt. Cmdr. Paul Spangler, M.D., Portland, Oregon, writing a firsthand account of the attack to his hunting buddies days afterward.

We had a little disturbance out here a week ago Sunday and it was sumpin. I must hasten to tell you that we all survived it without a scratch but I expected to see my maker most any moment that Sunday morning. They are begining [sic] to evacuate those who want to go but the family will stay here untill [sic] ordered home.

I was resting peacefully in bed when I noticed rather more 'practice fire' than I had heard before and then I realized that it was strange to be practicing on Sunday morning. About that time Clara and the kids came home from Church and their curiosity was aroused. Then I got the fatal word to report to the Hospital immediatley [sic]. I still was not certain what was going on untill [sic] I came off of the hill on my way to the Hospital. Then I saw the smoke from the several fires and saw the anti-aircraft shells exploding. I opened her up then and with my Pearl Harbor plates on I had the right of way and I was out there in nothing flat. I arrived just in the lull between waves of attacks about 30 minutes after the first shooting …

I hurried up to the Surgery and allready [sic] the casualties were pouring in. I did the first operation on a casual[ty] in this war if that is anything.

I spent the next 72 hours in four hour shifts at the operating table. During my first shift we were under almost constant bombing and the A-A fire kept up a constant din. They didn’t actually hit the hospital but one explosion was so close it blew all the windows out of the work room which was right next to the room I was operating in. I thought my time had come for sure. It was hell for a while. These poor devils brought in all shot up and burned. Many of them hopeless. We gave them plenty of morphine and sent them out in the Wards to die. The others we patched up as best we could. Some we opened their bellies and sewed up perforations in their bowels. It was all a nice party but personally I don’t want to see any more like it. ...

Don’t quote me, but this is the real dope. We have just three battleships that can fight now. The Arizona and the West Virginia are shambles. The Oklahoma is belly up and I doubt she will ever be of further use, if so it will be a full year. The California is sitting on the bottom but is still upright and may be salvaged. The Nevada is aground just across from the Hospital and they hope to float her this week but it will be a year before she can be fighting again. The Utah is a total wreck but she was not used except for training anyway. I think they thought she was a carrier as she was tied up at the carriers berth and they certainly gave her plenty. Four cruisers are badly damaged. Three destroyers are gone ...….

I think the people should know the truth. Then they would be roused to the necessary pitch to bring this thing to a successful conclusion. It is not going to be an easy job in my opinion. I only hope the country will now take off their coats and go to work. We have the ability and skill but it is going to mean many sacrifices for all and a long hard pull. What we need is planes, carriers, and subs. Thousands of them. ...

I hope this note gets through the route I have chosen. It certainly would not by the regular channels. We all send you our love and best wishes. We wish you all a Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year. And Remember Pearl Harbor.


(Spangler survived the war.)

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Lucille Summers, Beckley, West Virginia, writing to her brother Harold, a sailor on the doomed battleship USS Arizona, the day after Pearl Harbor.

Dear Harold,

Well, it’s come hasn’t it? Nothing else seems to matter right now, & every man on the street can talk of nothing else. The first bulletin was announced at 2:25 p.m. Sun. our time and I was the only one in the house that heard it. Bob was upstairs and I was doing the dinner dishes. The minute I heard Pearl Harbor mentioned, I told them, but they wouldn’t believe me until they heard another bulletin a few minutes later.

From that time on we were glued to our radio. I still can’t realize all this is going on. When they made the announcement of a ship being torpedoed we just held our breath, for you never know. I suppose now it will be like that until it’s all over for knowing that you’re in the thick of it doesn’t help matters. I have several gray hairs, so don’t do anything to help them on.

Bob & I just kept saying over & over — wondering what part you were playing, & if you were thinking of us. We’ve kept track of what time it is where you are, & I wondered if you got any sleep. Oh there’s so much that went through my mind! We took the radio to bed with us & listened until after 1 a.m. & I turned it on again at 7:30, & hasn’t been turned off once.

Listened to the Pres. make the declaration of war, & it was both thrilling & dreadful the way in which it was passed in such a short time. ...

Hope my other two letters arrived O.K. & don’t have to wait too long on this one. ... Try & get word to me you’re O.K. for you know how we’ll worry ...

(Lucille’s letter was sent back to her, unopened. Her brother Harold was one of the nearly 2,400 U.S. service members killed in the attack.)

Andrew Carroll is the founding director of the Center for American War Letters at Chapman University (