Pearl Harbor survivor: 'I thought ... this is it'

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The screeching sounds of hundreds of birds roused Jennie Joannides from sleep 72 years ago today.

That Sunday — Dec. 7, 1941 — dawned clear and calm on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

But around 8 a.m., Joannides and her husband, Louis, knew something was terribly wrong.

"Every dog from miles around was yelping in pain from the sounds we couldn't detect until a few seconds later,” she said. “They could hear things we couldn’t hear.”

The odd behavior from the dogs was a reaction to the bombings at Pearl Harbor that had occurred minutes before.

Joannides is a Pearl Harbor survivor. She was there when the Imperial Japanese

Navy led a surprise attack on United States naval forces.

The strike killed an estimated 2,500 American soldiers and sailors and wounded 1,000 more. It brought America into World War II.

Joannides moved to Cheyenne 17 years ago to be near her son, Tim, and his family. Since then, she has volunteered to talk about her Pearl Harbor experiences with many organizations here.

She wants people to remember the sacrifices of those who died. Her story comes from the perspective of family members of the military.

Joannides is 95 but looks and acts much younger. The well-spoken and immaculately groomed woman told her story Thursday to a group gathered at First United Methodist Church.

Her speech “is not a reflection on the present-day Japanese or Japanese Americans living in the United States or abroad,” she said.

“What happened 72 years ago was not the fault of the common, everyday Japanese citizen. War is an ugly business wherever and whenever it occurs.”

Her late husband, Louis, was a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve. He served for 4½ years during World War II and worked with Naval intelligence.

He spoke four languages fluently: Greek, English, French and Arabic. “That’s why the Navy was so happy to have him,” she said.

The military assigned him to Pearl Harbor in August 1941. She left home in Rock Island, Ill., to join him in November 1941.

At the time of the attack, they were living with friends in Hawaii until they could find a place of their own.

The home was next to Hickam Air Base, separated only by a high fence.

On Dec. 7, 1941, she raced outside the home after she heard the noises and saw Japanese fighter planes flying low above her head. They were flying back from Pearl Harbor.

She saw the pilots’ faces and the rising sun symbol of the Empire of Japan painted on the planes. One pilot flew so low that she could make out his goggles and cap.

“I thought, ‘Goodbye everybody, this is it,’ ” she said.

But the pilot joined the rest of his squadron and turned his plane back to the air base. Japanese pilots destroyed American planes that were parked on the ground. They fired at a building, killing American servicemen as they slept.

She couldn’t believe it when the attack occurred.

“My thoughts were, ‘It cannot be.’ I was numb with fear for my life and the life of all the people on the island.

“Then, the juices kicked in,” she said, and she became angry. “What started out being a peaceful Sunday became an inferno in a few minutes.”

Her husband arranged for her and a 7-year-old child she was tending to stay with a Greek couple for two weeks. The couple lived in the hills above Honolulu.

The child soon was reunited with her parents, and Joannides moved to an apartment in Honolulu.

She saw grim reminders of the attack in the days that followed. One day, she saw empty caskets on each side of the road waiting to be filled with the dead.

“A blackout was in effect over the whole island from sundown to daybreak,” she said. “No civilian was allowed on the streets after dark.”

The Japanese continued the strike after Dec. 7, she said. Air raid sirens sounded for days.

She wasn’t feeling well and thought it was from the after-effects of the strike. She and her husband found out she was in the first stages of pregnancy.

Her doctor told her to be ready at moment’s notice to leave the island for the mainland because of her condition.

Her departure came with no notice months later on Easter Sunday in 1942. “It was a very trying, emotional time. Would I ever see my husband again? Would he live to see our child?”

She traveled to San Francisco on a once-commercial ship that was converted into a bare-bones troop ship. Japanese submarines followed it across the Pacific Ocean.

She eventually made it home to Rock Island, Ill. A healthy baby girl named Susannah was born several months later.

She joined the Red Cross and visited injured service people at a military hospital.

Her husband won several medals during the war. When he came home, he returned to his job and they raised a family of two daughters and a son.

They celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary before his death in 1989.

About 10 years ago, she and a cousin traveled to Hawaii and visited the Pearl Harbor Memorial.

She had kept her emotions to herself all those years and never cried.

But when she watched a movie at the memorial about what happened, she began to sob. “I started to relive it,” she said.

“Dec. 7 made me grow up in a hurry. In the face of fire and destruction, I became a stronger person.”

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