Time & Place: Remembering The Attack On Pearl Harbor

Dec 7, 2017

The remains of tent barracks after a fire caused by the attack by Japanese bombers at Wheeler Field on December 7, 1941.
Credit Photo by the First U.S. Army Signal Corps from the U.S. Library of Congress.

The 76th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is this week. The events of that shocking day, when 2,400 Americans were killed, and more than a thousand were wounded, can seem pretty distant.  Historian Alicia Barber brings it home with the story of a Nevada native who witnessed it first hand in this episode of "Time and Place."

On December 7, 1941, the Empire of Japan launched a surprise air attack on the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.  Already allied with Germany and Italy, Japan saw the Navy’s Pacific Fleet as an obstacle to their planned conquest of Southeast Asia. 

An aerial photograph taken by a Japanese pilot,of the destruction of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, with a Japanese bomber in the lower right foreground.
Credit U.S. Library of Congress.

Their targets included not just the fleet’s ships, but also the surrounding military airfields. Lieutenant John Barrett of Reno was stationed at Schofield Barracks, the U.S. Army Air base next to Wheeler Field.  In a 2004 interview for the University of Nevada Oral History Program, he described what he saw that morning.

“I was on the main street of Schofield, and I was sleeping under a window, and a great, big noise came, and it was the first bomb, and it was down on Wheeler Field. And Wheeler Field and Schofield were just like one place. And I looked out the window, and I saw about three or four Japanese planes very low fly right over my head. And they wiped Wheeler Field out.”

Although stunned by the sudden attack, Barrett quickly sprang into action.

“Well, I got up, I got dressed, and I ran out that door, and I hit the sidewalk, and I looked down to the left, and there was a Jap plane coming right down the street: ‘Tuh-duh- duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh!’ And I turned around in mid-air and was running back into the house. And that plane went by, and there was another one right behind him!”

Lt. John Barrett.
Credit Photo provided to the University of Nevada Oral History Program by the John Barrett family.

By the time it was over, more than 350 Japanese warplanes had damaged or destroyed more than 300 American aircraft, and sunk or damaged 21 ships. Congress declared war on Japan the next day, officially entering World War II.

After the war, Barrett returned to Reno where he had a long career as a Washoe County District Court Judge. He died in 2004, just two months after recording his vivid account of what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy.”

Historian Alicia Barber is the editor of the website and smart phone app Reno Historical. Oral history clips for this segment were provided by the Special Collections Department of the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries, where you can find John Barrett’s complete oral history and many more.