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How Pearl Harbor Changed My Family

My father, Adrian Gerard Sira, moved to Hawaii from New Jersey in 1934 during the height of the Depression in search of a job. He was a widower with an infant daughter named Elaine whom he left with his first wife’s parents on Long Island to raise because he could not cope with being jobless. His intention was to bring Elaine out to Hawaii with his second wife, my mother, as soon as he got settled.

Dad began teaching math at Hilo High School, sent for my mother when he had the money for a ticket for her to travel across country and the Pacific Ocean. Elaine did not go out on that first trip for unknown reasons 

My parents lived in Hilo where my sister was born and then moved to Oahu where he began working at Pearl Harbor in 1938, the year I was born. We lived in paradise in a small house near Waikiki for the next three years.
 

On December 6, 1941, my father went to work on the night shift at Pearl Harbor, expecting to leave for home at 7:00 the next morning. That morning our lives changed drastically. I remember standing outside in our yard (I was 3, my sister 5 and my mother 5 months pregnant with my brother) with our neighbors, looking at the sky as planes flew over our house.  I remember the adults saying that those were not American planes…they were Japanese! 

For the next several days, my mother had no word from my father…communications were rather sparse out there…and we could see smoke rising from the direction of Pearl Harbor.
 
When Dad arrived home safely except for some burned hands, we learned that he had been getting ready to leave for home when they were attacked. He’d spent the next several days rescuing people, putting out fires, and doing whatever was needed to survive.

Dad never really told how he felt witnessing the bombing of those warships, especially the USS Arizona.  I think it was just too horrific an event for him to talk about. 

After that we were ordered to move closer to the base since Dad’s skills as a machinist were critically needed.  With gas rationing it was essential that he ride a scooter to work rather than use our car.
 
For the next four years our lives revolved around the war effort. 

My brother was born during a blackout. Conversations always included talk about the war. I can’t say it was an unhappy time for me as life went on as usual with school, including taking my gas mask with each day, and the usual childhood activities.

Several times we were awakened during the night to go to the neighborhood bomb shelter. They were scary tunnels with huge cobwebs and big red ants (to this day I still keep my bathrobe nearby in case of a nighttime emergency!).

The war years gave my father a stable career at Pearl Harbor that continued until his retirement in 1962.  He loved working for a cause and always felt proud of his contribution on that Day of Infamy in 1941.  He took us on trips to the base, and we were even allowed to go out to the submerged USS Arizona and stand on its huge overturned side.  Little did I know at that time that there were bodies inside that ship…we were not disrespectful at all but in some way my father was reminding us of what happened on December 7th.  I still get shivers thinking about it.

Recently I went to a Pearl Harbor Survivor event, eager to tell my story about my father.  The civilian side of this story may never be told in its entirely as their contributions have been overshadowed by the more dramatic events of that day.  
 
 

The biggest change for our family was that it was impossible for Elaine to be reunited with my father and his new family. She stayed back in New York and was raised by her grandparents. When the war was over, it was too late as by then she was a teenager and had her own life back East. Also other troubles were brewing like a dock strike and the Korean War. 

We wrote letters to her and did not meet until many years later as adults. My father did visit her when his job sent him back East. I think there were hard feelings on all sides that the war created this huge divide in our family.

While I cannot return to Hawaii for the 70th anniversary of Pearl Habor this coming December, I will be going back next summer with my daughter and her family. Of course we intend to visit Pearl Harbor, visit the USS Arizona memorial, and throw a lei into the waters where my father’s ashes were spread many years ago.

— Sally Sira Bright