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As kids, they witnessed the horrors of the Pearl Harbor attack

Survivors holding reunion in Virginia Beach

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — It started a year ago with a military wife in Hawaii wondering who was living in her Pearl Harbor house during the attack in 1941.

It continues on Friday with a reunion of children who once lived in the military quarters along Battleship Row, the ones whose lives were changed forever by Japanese bombers and sinking ships and the beginning of war.

Those children will meet, in Virginia Beach, for the first time since their community was hastily uprooted. It has been 72 years since they last saw each other. But they have never forgotten.

Patricia Bellinger was thrilled to be moving to Hawaii in October 1940. The 13-year-old daughter of Rear Adm. Patrick Bellinger, commander of Patrol Wing 2, she adored the hula dancers and flower leis thrown around her neck as she disembarked from the luxury liner Lurline.

Also happy to be on the island was Karen O'Beirne, whose mother, unfamiliar with tropical plants, had promised her three children they could climb pineapple trees. The large spiders and ants did not thrill Grace Thomas "Tommie" O'Beirne, wife of the commanding officer of a seaplane squadron, but she enjoyed the camaraderie among the officers' families who lived on Ford Island in the middle of the harbor.

It was an isolated life, with Honolulu a ferry ride away. But the children had school, playmates and a social life centered on the swimming pool, and the rows of battleships tied up alongside the officers' quarters gave a sense of security.

Yet Alice Zuber did not feel safe. She had first refused to go when her husband, Maj. Adolph Zuber, received orders to command the Marine barracks at Pearl Harbor. Her daughters, Joan and Peggy, persuaded her, even though Alice had dreamed she would be leading them into danger.

The remnants of preparations for an earlier era's defense were still visible on Ford Island: a concrete gun emplacement left over from World War I, now disarmed and used as a garage by the Bellingers, whose house was built atop it. The open end, 10 feet by 5, faced the battleships. The long, dark corridor of the dungeon, with its heavy doors and side rooms, was spooky and mysterious, just right for the "adventure club" created by some of the younger girls.

It was all great fun, yet upstairs a darker mood prevailed. Patricia's outgoing Irish father would pound the lunch table with his fist, swearing about the failure of his naval superiors to upgrade the defenses and equipment at Pearl Harbor.

"Pat, please, the children," his wife would say, and Patricia would wonder why he was so upset.

Bellinger held a number of honors for his pioneering work in aviation, including the Navy Cross for making the first trans-Atlantic flight, from Newfoundland to the Azores, in 1919. But his letter of January 1941, describing Pearl Harbor's air defenses as obsolete and operating on a shoestring, brought no upgrades.

Two months later, he and another officer outlined dangers and defense plans for Hawaii in case of attack. Using a code word — "Orange" — for Japan, the report said: "It appears possible that Orange submarines and/or an Orange fast raiding force might arrive in Hawaiian waters with no prior warning."

Pearl Harbor began weekly air raid and blackout drills that spring. The Zuber family would practice running from their house the half mile to the dungeon, their assigned shelter. Afterward, they would walk home slowly, the girls waving at the sailors on the battleships, who waved back. At the house, Alice began packing boxes with clothing and bedding. "Getting ready," she told her daughters, and Joan wondered what she was getting ready for.

From their Ford Island house, the Ramsey family often heard music coming from the movies played aboard the battleship Arizona, one of the many ships tethered along the shore in Battleship Row.

Sixteen-year-old Mary Ann Ramsey had not wanted to move to Hawaii. She reluctantly boarded a ship in August 1941 for the five-day trip from San Francisco to join her father, Cmdr. Logan Ramsey, Bellinger's operations officer. She and her mother disembarked in a misty rain.

"Liquid sunshine, darlings," her father said, draping leis about her neck. "Legend has it that one who arrives when it rains like this will have much luck."

Mary Ann quickly reconciled to Hawaiian life, including the Japanese maids who worked in the officers' quarters. She noticed, but did not particularly worry, when some quietly began leaving their jobs in late November.

As the adults talked more and more about "being prepared," the girls in the adventure club decided they should also make plans. They agreed to serve lemonade and fudge to those sheltering in the dungeon during an attack, but were concerned about the lack of chairs. The Zuber girls brought two chairs from home and, because a friend had said they would need aprons, also brought two pinafores on clothes hangers.

On Saturday, Dec. 6, Lt. Cmdr. Frank O'Beirne was tired. The day before, he had brought his squadron of PBY Catalina seaplanes back to Pearl Harbor after seven weeks on Midway Island, and a three-day stopover on Wake Island.

The Ramseys had guests that day. As the group broke up, Mary Ann's father remarked, "Well, let's hope the Japs wait until after Christmas before they start raising hell in the Pacific."

The admiral's wife, Miriam Bellinger, got ready to take four girls — her daughters and two of their friends — to a circus in Honolulu. They waved at Rear Adm. Isaac Kidd, out for his usual morning jog around Ford Island. Kidd was a favorite with the officers' children. He always had in his pocket a few matchbooks, each bearing the name of a different ship, that the kids loved to collect.

After the show, Bellinger's gig brought Miriam and the girls back to Ford Island. As the boat passed the tethered ships of the Navy's Pacific fleet, Miriam said: "Isn't it beautiful? There are so many ships in the harbor."

The telephone woke Mary Ann Ramsey on Sunday. She heard her father say, "Are you sure?" before he ran out of the house. Her mother, still in bed, told Mary Ann that a submarine had been sunk just outside the harbor.

Six-year-old Karen O'Beirne was sitting on the bathroom floor in her family's house, polishing her new shoes, when she was startled by a loud noise. "Dear God, please let this stop," she thought, figuring it was all right to say a real prayer on Sunday about something annoying. Her sister and brother were outside with the family's maid, her parents still in bed.

"Whatever is that?" her mother said, and looked out the window. "It's the Japs!" she screamed as a plane marked with Japan's unmistakable red disk swooped low and began firing on her children. Her husband dashed to the window just in time to see a bomb destroy his squadron's planes.

He rushed his family into the hallway, throwing mattresses over them to protect them from shrapnel and bullets.

Next door, 8-year-old Tom Davey and his brother saw a Japanese pilot wave as the low-flying plane zipped past. His father dragged the boys inside.

The Zuber girls were chopping onions for the family's lunchtime pork roast. Joan saw smoke rising near the water tower, then realized the masts of two battleships were no longer parallel. She ran to tell her mother.

"Look out the window! Please look out the window!" Joan begged, and her father shouted, "Get to the shelter!"

Alice Zuber, still wearing her nightgown, tried to cover her daughters' heads with her arms as they sprinted for the dungeon, but a plane dived toward them, guns firing.

"They're strafing us!" she screamed. As they passed the bachelor officers' quarters, a man shouted for them to come inside, and pulled them up onto the tall loading dock. In the building's kitchen, Alice and Joan ducked under a table. Peggy crawled under the cast-iron sink but then came back out, just as a huge explosion filled the sky with fire and shook the building. Glass shattered. Joan screamed. Alice began to pray that God would let her children be killed rather than maimed.

Rear Adm. Bellinger, nursing a bad cold, was still in bed when the explosions began. Get downstairs to the dungeon, he ordered. "They wouldn't dare. They wouldn't dare," his wife exclaimed, as the family began to gather their belongings.

Patricia had just picked up a tube of lipstick when an explosion rocked Ford Island. They saw the battleship Arizona engulfed in flame and smoke, saw the bodies of men tossed into the air, and then shrapnel started tearing through the ceiling of their house.

Hurry! the admiral shouted, then ran outside to his car and drove away.

In Quarters E, medical officer Lt. Cmdr. Cecil Riggs sent his wife to the dungeon with their German shepherd, Chief. Before heading for the dispensary, he paused just long enough to give her a revolver and instructions: If the Japanese invade, shoot the dog, then yourself. The couple had been in China when Japan invaded Nanking; they were well aware of the rape and murder of women and children.

Another mother instructed an armed Marine to save three bullets in case the Japanese got into the dungeon: "When I am sure my children are dead, then you will shoot me."

Tommie O'Beirne and a friend planned suicide by pills — the thought of capture was unbearable.

The Arizona exploded as Mary Ann Ramsey dashed across the yard to the dungeon. Something hit her wrist; she looked behind for her mother and saw her ducking behind bushes. In the dungeon, a woman knelt with a rosary. A baby cried. Mary Ann realized that a chunk of her silver bracelet was missing.

At the command center, Cmdr. Ramsey sent an uncoded message over the radio: "Air raid Pearl Harbor. This is not drill."

In the bachelors' quarters, Alice Zuber calmed her terrified daughter: "Don't cry. Marines don't cry. Don't ruin the morale of the men."

Joan bottled up her terror and screamed only in her head. A Marine rushed them into a truck and drove to the dungeon. They were horrified to find moaning, wounded men crawling up the shore out of the flaming water, blackened with oil and burns.

Planes strafed them in the grass, and Patricia Bellinger, at 14 one of the older children, worked alongside the adults, pulling men into the dungeon. A medic ordered her to cover one man with a blanket. He already has one, she replied, and the medic said, "Don't argue with me, child. I don't have time for that. Get a blanket on him."

She looked again, and realized that the dark blanket over him was his own blackened skin, hanging loose from his shoulders.

Peggy Zuber exclaimed, "Oh, how I wish I could help them," and resolved to become a nurse when she was grown.

In the harbor, the destroyer Helm escaped to sea in pursuit of a Japanese mini-sub, which sank, leaving behind America's first prisoner of war. The battleship Nevada headed to sea, anti-aircraft guns blazing, and through the smoke that surrounded the ship could be seen the American flag, torn, but still flying.

In the dungeon, the families were asked to give whatever clothing they could spare to help mop oil off the wounded. The Zuber girls took off their bathrobes and handed them over.

Medics, unable to do much else, began giving morphine shots to the wounded. Tommie O'Beirne was asked by a corpsman whether she knew how to give a shot; she said she would try. "This ain't no time to learn, lady," he said, leaving her ashamed and feeling inadequate.

The children, gathered in an interior room, were big-eyed and quiet, frightened but not understanding, until word came down that Rear Adm. Kidd, the giver of collectible matchbook covers, had died on the Arizona. They began to cry.

Then the second wave of Japanese planes arrived, the high-altitude bombers, and the attack began anew.

Protected by a slab of concrete upended on the runway, Lt. Cmdr. O'Beirne watched the bombs fall, saw the wings and tail shear off a plane pulling out of a steep dive and saw it crash. A bomb dropped into the yard of the dispensary but did not explode; Maj. Zuber was cut by shattering glass but refused treatment.

The battleship Pennsylvania was bombed. The bow of the Shaw blew off. The Cassin, the Downes, the Raleigh were hit. The Tennessee and the West Virginia sank. The Utah and Oklahoma capsized. The noise was constant, the air rancid with smoke.

Inside the dungeon, water and electricity had failed. The single toilet quit working. Men began to open cans of juice and food and pass them around, with orders to eat what was given, in case the next meal never came. Mrs. Bellinger got candied yams; the woman next to her, clams.

"Don't you think we should start a little community sing?" one woman asked, and launched into "Jingle Bells." Another woman, trying to comfort a shrieking infant, said, "Don't! Please don't!" and the singing stopped.

The attack ended at 10 a.m., but not until noon were the shaken families allowed to leave the dungeon, and then only to dash to their houses for clothing and necessities.

Joan and Peggy Zuber went back home, where the body of a dead Japanese pilot lay in the yard. Joan looked at it curiously, wondering where the fatal wound was. He was surrounded by bits of metal, blackened glass, decking plates, even knives and forks blown off exploding ships. She wanted to kick him, but didn't. This, she realized, was what her mother had been preparing for.

Inside, the nails that held the house together had been pushed out by the shock wave from the Arizona explosion. Walls and ceilings were speckled with bullet and shrapnel holes, and a plate of sheet metal bisected the path they had taken when they fled the house.

Marines were in front of the O'Beirne house, pulling up the signpost that bore the lieutenant commander's name. In case of invasion, they told Tommie, the Japanese might seek to kill the officers first.

Miriam Bellinger took her girls on a walk through what had been their neighborhood. The Arizona, just offshore, still burned furiously.

"Children," she said, "remember this day. Let's pray it will never happen again."

On the veranda of their house, where dinner parties and cocktails had once been served, a machine gun stood. They wondered why such an obvious target had been placed on top of the bomb shelter.

That night, women and children were assigned to various locations. The rooms were crowded, the only drinking water dipped from the swimming pool, then boiled. The Zubers shared a room with a family whose small boy wet one bed after another, until all were unusable. Joan, Peggy and Alice rolled themselves in blankets and slept on the floor, wondering whether Adolph Zuber was still alive.

Near dawn, the shooting started anew. Tom Davey hid under a table in the bachelors' quarters, sure it was the feared invasion as he watched flashes of light reflect off the highly polished hallway floor. Patricia Bellinger, in the dungeon, thought the tracer bullets looked like fireworks, arcing above the still-burning ships in the harbor.

It was a terrible mistake. Nervous guards had opened fire on planes arriving from the American aircraft carrier Enterprise, and shot down several, adding to the casualty count — 21 ships and 347 planes lost or damaged, 2,403 men dead, 1,178 wounded — from the attack on Pearl Harbor.

On Monday, Dec. 8, the air was filled with the noise of jackhammers and acetylene torches, as crews tried to cut open the hulls of capsized ships to rescue survivors.

Several families gathered at the Bellingers' to hear President Franklin D. Roosevelt's radio address. Even the children sat quietly and listened as he described "a date that will live in infamy" and war was declared. The familiar strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner" began, and every person in the room rose to their feet, hands on their hearts. Tears ran down their cheeks.

Mary Ann Ramsey, who had worked stoically and without fear the previous day, comforting the wounded, holding cigarettes for those whose hands could not and, later, distributing food, was overwhelmed. She walked outside and stared at the hulk of the Arizona, where 1,177 men had died and, for the first time during the whole ordeal, cried.

Fathers began to reappear, the first time their worried families knew that they were still alive. They were so tired and haggard that they were almost unrecognizable.

Tom Davey's father found his son at a table with the other kids, loading bullets into machine gun belts. The Marine commander's reserve broke down, and he wept.

On Dec. 13, Mary Ann Ramsey's father came home unexpectedly. Pack one suitcase apiece, he told his wife and daughter. You have 45 minutes.

Families were being sent away from Hawaii, so fathers could concentrate on their military duties. A Pan Am Clipper seaplane was waiting.

The Bellingers were carried to the plane on the admiral's gig, zigzagging across the harbor, dodging debris and patches of burning oil and sunken ships.

Cmdr. Ramsey tried to lighten the mood by joking about having no leis to give his family a proper send-off. But he was serious when he told his daughter to have fun while she could, as the world was changing quickly. Then he kissed them goodbye and said: "For the first time in our lives, my family comes second."

As they boarded the seaplane, the first flight either of them had ever taken, Mary Ann heard her father call out "God bless you!"

She had never heard him say that before.

The O'Beirnes left on Dec. 20, flying to California. It would be two years before they saw their father again.

The Zubers left on Christmas Day, sailing in a convoy aboard the Lurline, no longer a luxury liner, but overcrowded and grim.

One by one, the families that had lived on Ford Island left for the mainland, and the children never saw or heard from each other again.

Until now.

In January 2013, Navy Capt. Kyle Luksovsky and his wife, Katrina, were assigned to Pearl Harbor, and given Quarters H along Battleship Row in what is now called Nob Hill. The Arizona memorial is only a few hundred yards from their doorstep.

Who, Katrina wondered, had been living in the house when Pearl Harbor was attacked?

She began researching with the help of a local historian and soon had the names, but that wasn't enough. She began trying to trace the families and their descendants. The couple who had lived in her house was childless, but after months of work she had located 17 people who were children during the attack.

They were eager to ask what she had learned about their old playmates and neighbors, and Katrina decided to organize a reunion. It will take place Friday in Virginia Beach, and the children of Ford Island will come from as far as California and Massachusetts to meet again.

It is more than renewing friendships. The survivors understand each other in a way nobody else can, Joan Zuber said in a phone interview. They know how one another felt, how they feel today. They just know.

It has been 72 years, and life has happened to them — school and careers and marriages and divorces and births and deaths and all the things that happen to normal people in normal times.

But they have never forgotten.
 

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