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Locals recall living through Pearl Harbor attack

By Greg Gelpi

Explosions rumbled only miles away in Pearl Harbor, and enemy planes buzzed by just above her, close enough to recognize the rising sun decal of the Japanese fighter planes.

"I don't believe this is happening," Fran Stephenson, 82, recalled. "It's a dream. I'm going to wake up."

She lived three miles from Pearl Harbor and experienced the attacks of Dec. 7, 1941, as the Japanese military executed a surprise strike on the U.S. Navy's Pacific fleet, killing nearly 2,400 Americans in a matter of hours.

Stephenson, 18 at the time, worked as a secretary for the Army, and her father was stationed at a military base as an engineer.

"He just turned to my mother and said, 'This is it,' and took off," she said.

It "looked like the Fourth of July," the Jonesboro resident said. Soldiers fired into the dark at skiffs that had broken free in the harbor, fearing that they were Japanese invaders.

"Things happened so fast," Stephenson said. "We didn't have time to be frightened."

The surprise attack was initiated around 6 a.m., killing 2,388 American military personnel, some of whom she knew. The fatalities included 1,777 aboard the USS Arizona alone.

"It's a lot of horror that I have put out of my mind because I don't want to remember," Stephenson said. "I don't think I can forget it until I lose my memory."

Only hours before the attack, she had been out with her boyfriend at Schofield Barracks, one of the many military installations in Oahu that were later hit.

A second wave of planes approached and everyone grew excited that the "good guys" had arrived, but when they passed overhead people discovered that they were more Japanese planes, she said.

The attack, designed to weaken the U.S. military in the Pacific, instead served to strengthen the nation.

Leland Edwards, 79, of Jonesboro, was walking home from Sunday school 63 years ago in Salt Lake City, Utah, when he learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

"I think it surprised a lot of people that they would attack someone as large as the United States," Edwards said. "A lot of people were upset, and the recruiting offices filled up pretty fast."

Edwards, who knew someone killed in the attack, was one of those who rushed to enlist in the military, but had to wait until he turned 17 in order to do so.

In the meantime, he delivered telegrams, including messages informing parents that their children had been killed in the war.

When he was able to enlist, Edwards joined the Marine Corps and fought in Iwo Jima. The Pearl Harbor attack compelled him to service, and Edwards hopes that the attack will continue to elicit reactions, although he's doubtful.

"Very few people will even say a prayer," he said.

Many liken the attack on Pearl Harbor to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"It was almost the whole thing over again," Stephenson said, adding that it gave her the same helpless feeling.

There was a distinction, though, between Pearl Harbor and the attacks of Sept. 11, Edwards said. Sept. 11 was an attack on civilians.

The attack on Pearl Harbor drew America into World War II, fours years of fighting in Europe and the Pacific.

According to the National Park Service, which has turned the sunken wreck of the USS Arizona into a memorial of the attack, 33 Japanese warships and auxiliary aircraft, including six aircraft carriers, launched from Japan Nov. 26, following a route far to the north of normal shipping routes to avoid detection.

The Japanese lost 64 soldiers in the attack. In addition to the fatalities, America had 1,178 Americans wounded, 12 ships sunk and nine ships damaged. The attack destroyed 164 American aircraft and damaged 159.