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From paradise to a war zone: Pearl Harbor bombing remembered 75 years later

Don Wallace, of Portage, was 9 years old on Dec. 7, 1941, when he saw Japanese planes bomb Pearl Harbor. The first plane came so close, he said, he could see the pilot's smiling face.

When he was a child, Don Wallace lived in paradise. He and his brothers and their friends lived a carefree childhood of roaming the hills and beaches of Oahu, Hawaii.

Then came Dec. 7, 1941.

Wallace's paradise soon turned into a war zone — terrifying to a 9-year-old boy.

Wallace, 84, of Portage, along with Wendy Masters of Valparaiso, are considered child survivors of Pearl Harbor. They are two of what is believed to be about 1,500 survivors left in the United States. That's all that's left of every man, woman and child on the island at the time of the attack.

Both were living on the island when the Japanese attacked that morning. Both recall that day and the aftermath. Both speak about that day so new generations will remember an event most historians believe changed the course of history.

"If they are interested in hearing the story, I will share it as long as I can," said Masters, now 78, adding for today's generation "the day that will live in infamy" is often no more than a paragraph in a history book, if not entirely forgotten. She's also contributing her story to a book on the 75th anniversary of the bombing.

Jim Laud Sr. of Cedar Lake is the Indiana chairman of the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors. About a decade ago, the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association reached out to him to start a sons and daughters chapter. There are two chapters in the state, one in the north and one in Indianapolis. Each has about a dozen members, he said.

"Our goal is to help foster patriotism and to help people remember Pearl Harbor," said Laud, whose father was stationed aboard the USS Sacramento that morning.

Laud said that includes telling the story of the attack that "awoke a sleeping giant," and the men and women who fought and died and those who survived.

'You could throw a rock'

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From paradise to a war zone: Pearl Harbor bombing remembered 75 years later

Don Wallace and his mother sit outside their home in Pearl City Peninsula, Hawaii, in the 1940s. Many local residents wore helmets and gas masks following the attacks on Pearl Harbor.

Wallace remembers that morning. He and his dad and brothers were still in bed as his mom cooked breakfast. Explosions then shook the house, nearly knocking him out of bed. The family ran outside.

"I'll always remember that first plane coming over. If you had a rock you could have thrown it and hit it," said Wallace, whose father was a civilian rigger who worked on the ships at Pearl Harbor. The family lived in Pearl Harbor City, a peninsula that juts out into the harbor where the U.S. ships were docked that morning.

At first, he said, his dad thought it was maneuvers. His family jumped into a car to get a closer look. When they saw a destroyer explode, they knew it was more.

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From paradise to a war zone: Pearl Harbor bombing remembered 75 years later

Don Wallace outside his home in Pearl City Peninsula, Hawaii, in the 1940s. Many local residents wore helmets and gas masks following the attacks on Pearl Harbor.

"It was just like in the movies. There was the stench of the oil burning and the dark, dark smoke," he said.

The families on the peninsula  headed toward Pearl City, eventually making their way into the mountains where they set up camp, not knowing what was going to happen next.

"I was scared to death," Wallace remembers, adding after spending time in the mountains the family went to a school in the next town where the gym was set up to house people.

When they finally returned home, he said, the boys spent time picking up stray bullets and shrapnel.

"It was paradise before the attack," said Wallace, who was born in Hawaii.

Afterward, it was a world of keeping gas masks at your side, keeping your lights out at night in case of a raid, and seeing machine gun nests set up on the beach.

'Come quick'

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From paradise to a war zone: Pearl Harbor bombing remembered 75 years later

Wendy Masters of Valparaiso was 3 years old the morning Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. Her father was in the U.S. Navy. 

Masters' mother, Martha Minniear, was the first in the family to witness the attack, said Masters.

"Carl, come quick," she recalls her mother saying that morning.

Masters' father was a Navy man. Stationed aboard the USS Phoenix, he was home that morning and put his oldest daughter up on his shoulders to witness the attack. Carl Minniear soon reported to the base.

For days, she said, the fires burned and there was chaos. There was fear the Japanese would return and possibly poison the reservoir where they got their water.

"We were convinced they would make a landing," she said, adding the island was under marshal law.

Like the Wallace family, the Minniears faced the fears of what would happen next. The Minniears rented a house from a Japanese family and became suspicious when the family began stockpiling what she thinks was rice.

After the attack, the family found another house and Masters' mother used a stroller to move their belongings from one home to another.

What strikes Masters to this day is her mother's strength. While her father was at the base, she cared for Masters and her 9-week-old sister during the ordeal. Like many of the families, they decided to leave the island. They were among the last to leave in April 1942. She didn't see her father again for about a year.

Masters said her mother had to make all the arrangements to go back stateside. At one point, once they reached Los Angeles, they needed to head to San Diego on a train. With the girls in tow, her mother decided she had enough money to buy tickets instead of waiting for the Navy to provide them transportation. The clerk at the train station, however, told Martha she needed her husband with her to buy tickets.

Her mother, said Masters, grabbed a young sailor and had him pose as her husband and purchase the tickets for her.

"In 1943, my father's ship came into Philadelphia," said Masters. "My mom takes us two kids across country on the train."

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Porter County reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for more than 38 years, including 23 years with The Times. She covers municipal and school government in Valparaiso and Portage.