By DONNA BETH WEILENMAN
When Earl J. Kohler describes the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he recalls the sounds of planes, bombs and breaking glass as vividly as if the attack had happened hours, not decades ago.Kohler, who goes by Chuck, is a Concord resident now, but when he was 17, he was sent from his Minnesota family farm to the VP 23 Naval Air Station on Ford Island, a body of land mounded up from dredging work that made O`ahu’s Pearl Harbor deep enough for aircraft carriers and other large military ships.
A seaman first class at the time, Kohler wasn’t supposed to be on an upper floor of Building 54 using a typewriter to write a letter to his mother.
“I was using the old two-finger hunt and peck system,” he said.
Dec. 7, 1941, was a Sunday, and Ford Island had but a skeleton crew. Two mighty aircraft carriers, the Lexington and Enterprise, were on their way to Midway and Wake Island, so Kohler was surprised to hear some planes that sounded like they were being flown by some hotshot pilots hotdogging their aircraft ahead of any returning ships.
He heard a plane go into a power dive and thought about the pilot: “He’s going to be in trouble.”
“I didn’t realize that we were in trouble,” Kohler said. He also didn’t realize the diving pilot had just unleashed bombs, until the impact shattered a window, sending glass and shrapnel into the back of Kohler’s head.
Even then, he thought a “friendly” pilot had crashed. A Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor? “Everybody thought that was impossible,” he said.
Once the window broke, Kohler ripped the letter from the typewriter and tossed it aside so he wouldn’t get caught. On a lower floor, he saw another plane make a power dive accompanied by popping and banging sounds, and saw the flashes of machine gun fire and the shots that ricocheted off metal doors and pavements.
“He kept coming down and dropped a big old bomb,” Kohler said, saying he thought at the time the bomb was close enough to catch in his arms. “He pulled off, leveled his flight 100-150 feet overhead.”
That’s when Kohler saw the red circle “Rising Sun” insignia of Imperial Japan. That’s when it sunk in. “They were after us.”Some think the Japanese’s primary target was American ships, but Kohler said that wasn’t the case. The real target, he said, were planes – especially the long-range Patrol Bomber Consolidated (PBY) Catalina amphibious seaplanes that targeted submarines, and the Army bombers at Hickam Field.
A duty officer called to Kohler, but instead of taking the men to the ammunitions storage, he ordered them into a construction ditch and threatened them with punishment if they left.
But that didn’t sit well with Kohler, who was angry at the attack and anxious to return fire. He and another sailor ran for the munitions storage and grabbed a machine gun and rounds, despite the threats of military discipline for disobeying a direct order.
“I knew this was the beginning of the war we’d been preparing for. If I went, I wanted to die fighting, not hiding,” he said.
Dodging the bombs and artillery fire, he and the huskier other sailor loaded the gun onto a plane’s fixed mount, “like a cannon.” The second man tried to take aim, but the planes eluded his fire.
“I wanted to get those guys,” Kohler said. So he took over.
Kohler grew up in the country, where the ability to aim accurately could mean the difference in having dinner or going hungry. He applied a “bead and lead” tactic – aiming at where the plane would be when the bullet sailed out – and applied continued fire at one of the planes.
“He dived and went overhead. I stitched the bottom of his fuselage,” Kohler said.
Another plane was coming within range, so Kohler brought his gun down and fired some more.
He saw a third plane descending into a left turn to make another run. “I got a bead and lead on him,” Kohler said. He knew the pilot was focused, “but if you can get rounds in with the pilot, that gives him something to think about.”
Six to eight rounds went into the fuselage, and Kohler speculates that what the pilot “thought about” was veering away from the attack. “The plane did a rolling turn out of the field of fire.”
Kohler took aim on another plane. “No one came back to bother us.” He said nine planes had been ready to come into bomb and machine gun the island. “I think he told his wingman, ‘Don’t come back.’”
Within an hour, a second attack wave came, this time aiming at ships. The USS Nevada was trying to make it out to sea. “They were on it like bees,” he said.
Witnesses said the pilots rained “a hail of bombs” on the Nevada, which began sinking in a position that blocked the harbor channel.
A little tugboat, the Hoga, joined another vessel to move the Nevada and put out the fire that enveloped its deck and consumed its forward section. It also attacked fires on other vessels on “Battleship Row,” including one on the doomed USS Arizona. (Later, after being used as a fireboat in Oakland, the Hoga was stored at the Reserve Fleet at Suisun Bay until it became the property of the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum in North Little Rock.)
Kohler aimed his fire at the planes pursuing the Nevada until they were out of range in the channel.
He looked around. “Our own aircraft began to burn so fiercely, I couldn’t see them anymore,” Kohler said.
He said the sailors tried to save the planes that weren’t burning. At that point, Kohler saw a man operating a camera instead of a gun. He yelled at the man to grab a weapon. The man answered, “I’m shooting history!” Five decades later, Kohler would see he is in some of the pictures that man took.
About the same time, he also heard an interview with some of the Japanese pilots who survived their assault on Pearl Harbor, a mission they all viewed as a one-way assignment.
One of the former pilots described how he had been leading a group of nine who were targeting planes on Ford Island, which they had anticipated would mount little defense on a Sunday.
“I was surprised how fast they reacted,” the pilot told the interviewer. He described how they were preparing for a second run when someone on a machine gun below sent clouds of bullets along their trajectory. That made him change his mind about the attack.
Kohler paused, thinking of how at 17 he had managed to get that machine gun installed and operating in short order, “to get up a little bit of defense. Good for me!” But 17-year-olds of his time are different from those who are 17 today, he mused.
Kohler dodged bombs and bullets, but thought he hadn’t dodged his punishment when after the attack had subsided he heard an officer yell his last name. “Come back here!”
The officer noticed the blood on the back of his head and clothes, and learned how glass and shrapnel had caused the bleeding cuts to Kohler’s head.
“You get to the (expletive) sick bay – and don’t disobey this order!”
Kohler remained in the Navy even after the war ended, and was assigned to the Naval Air Station in Alameda as an inspector, checking all planes under the Navy’s command, then returned to Pearl Harbor. He also took a metalsmithing course at the University of Oklahoma at the Navy’s request.
A participant in the incident that launched United States participation in World War II, Kohler was also part of its conclusion, deployed to Ailinglaplap in the Marshall Islands to accept the surrender of some Japanese troops.
“That was a satisfying thing,” he said. “They beat us up so badly Dec. 7, and I was there at the end.”
Kohler eventually achieved the rank of Chief Petty Officer First Class and returned to Minnesota in 1945. But something about his stay in California called to him, and he moved west in 1951.
He took on several jobs, driving taxis and servicing sewing machines before joining Columbia Steel and entering the construction field. He’s had a hand in building California Highway 4 from Antioch to Pittsburg, Interstate-680, BART lines and the south terminal of the San Francisco International Airport, as well as other landmarks.
He met his future bride, July Woodworth, who had moved to California from Joplin, Missouri. They were married 61 years ago, and the couple has reared four children. They also have 16 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren.
“We’re still on our honeymoon,” he said.
Kohler returned to Pearl Harbor in 2010, and was escorted by a naval historian, who was willing to take him anywhere he wanted. Kohler paid his respects to memorials of the various ships lost, including the Arizona, and returned to that old Building 54, where the first bomb dropped. As he walked around, he realized that sometime during that attack, “I lost that 17-year-old youth.”
He pointed out the windows where glass and shrapnel had shattered into his skin, and kicked around for the construction ditch where he and others took temporary refuge until he chose to fight back. The historian said he is one of just two people who mentions the ditch in his stories, and Kohler said he’s still proud he defied a direct order and chose to fight. It made for better memories, he added.
Since his retirement, he’s often asked to speak about his experiences, and had two such engagements for this year’s Veterans Day ceremonies. He said it isn’t to bring him any glory. “You do it to bring attention to those who served,” he said.