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Pearl Harbor: As Experienced by Those Who Were There and Some Who Were Not

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December 7, 2014 will mark 73 years since the infamous attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Americans far and wide felt the collective trauma of the attack, which led to the United States’ entry into World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it, “a date which will live in infamy.” He was right. My father was just a baby on that fateful day, and my mother would not be born until a few weeks later, but they each grew up listening to my grandparents share family lore about Pearl Harbor. The Pacific Ocean and a distance of more than 5,000 miles could not keep the shock and horror of the attack from barging into their households like a burglar.

For me, hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor, reading about it in old newspaper clippings and text books and even visiting the site on a tour of the island as a child were jarring enough. I cannot imagine experiencing, not to mention surviving, something so awful firsthand.  Thanks to the Veterans History Project (VHP), no one has to imagine it. We can relive those moments and their after-effects through veterans’ own words, and, thankfully for us, through the safety of our computer screens.

Fifteen Pearl Harbor veterans’ digitized collections were included in a 2011 VHP “Experiencing War” website feature commemorating the 70th anniversary of the attack. Here is a look at three of the featured veterans, Kathryn Doody, James Doyle and Robert Coates.

Contemporary head and shoulders photo of older woman.
Kathryn Doody on the day of VHP interview. Kathryn Mary Doody Collection, AFC/2001/001/23308.

Kathryn Mary Doody was serving in the Army Nurse Corps and was thrust into combat medicine the moment she began treating Pearl Harbor bombing victims at the Honolulu hospital at which she was working.

That was also the first day she witnessed her first major limb amputation. Moody went on to serve in a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, the likes of which were made famous in the hit television series M*A*S*H*.

James Doyle was a Photographer’s Mate First Class in the Navy who captured aerial photographs of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Head and shoulders photo of man with Pearl Harbor cap with pins.  Books and boxes are seen in the background.
James Doyle on the day of VHP interview. James J. Doyle Collection, AFC/2001/001/73565.

Being a photographer did not guarantee his safety, however. Doyle had to dodge bullets from Japanese planes flying overhead; and over the next two years, he managed to survive the Battle of Coral Sea, Guadalcanal and being shot down by the Japanese while taking photos over Florida Island.

Robert Coates served aboard the USS Nevada, and happened to be on shore when the attack first occurred. It was a day he would never forget.

Black and white headshot of smiling sailor.
Robert Coates in Navy uniform. Robert Abbott Coates Collection, AFC/2001/001/489.

Coates recalled going without food or sleep for two days, and helping to rescue soldiers who had been burned by oil. After Pearl Harbor, Coates participated in some of the heaviest action in the Pacific Theater. He said that nothing ever rivaled the shock he felt on December 7, 1941.

The attack on Pearl Harbor altered the course of history and changed countless lives in an instant. That day has, indeed, lived in infamy. I think it is worth taking a few moments over the next couple of days to pay tribute to the fallen heroes of 73 years ago, as well as to those who survived and lived to tell it.

Go here to access all 15 stories in the website feature. Visit to access the nearly 95,000 veterans’ collections in the VHP archive, representing all United States military branches, wars and conflicts since World War I.

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