Larry Larue: Steilacoom widower tells of witnessing Pearl Harbor attack

Steilacoom widower tells of witnessing Pearl Harbor attack of Dec. 7, 1941

larry.larue@thenewstribune.comDecember 7, 2013 

Tadashi Fujioka looks out Thursday from the living room of his Steilacoom home. He lived near Pear Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941 and watched the attack from a hill.

PETER HALEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The first planes flew over his family’s home just before 8 a.m., as Tadashi Fujioka was eating breakfast before church.

He was 16, a Japanese-American boy in Hawaii. When he ran outside, he saw low-flying planes overhead, the Japanese flag on the underside of their wings.

They were headed toward Pearl Harbor, less than two miles away.

“Everyone who could fit got into the car, and we drove to the top of the hill,” Fujioka recalled this week. “From there, you could see the entire harbor. Planes were flying in every direction, at every angle.”

It was Dec. 7, 1941, and the world was changing in front of his eyes. The Japanese had surprised America with an

attack by 353 planes, and as Fujioka and his family watched, ship

after ship was struck.

“Some of those pilots were kamikazes, and they flew their planes into the ships. We watched the Arizona burn. We saw the Utah capsize in front of our eyes. It went on for what seemed like several hours,” Fujioka said.

Historians say it lasted about 90 minutes.

Eight U.S. battleships were damaged, four sunk. Three destroyers were sunk; three cruisers and 188 American planes were destroyed.

When the attack ended, 2,402 Americans had been killed.

The Japanese lost 29 planes.

“I remember my parents that day saying ‘What the hell are they thinking, attacking this country?’” Fujioka said.

Now an 88-year-old Steilacoom widower, Fujioka has never forgotten what he witnessed 72 years ago this weekend. Nor has he often discussed it, even with his children.

“I’m the oldest of four daughters, and I didn’t know the story until I was an adult,” said Doris McConnell. “I had to ask him directly or he’d never have said a thing. When I talked to my sisters, they’d never heard the story.”

Within days of the attack, Buddhist priests were rounded up and taken to the mainland.

“Anyone who’d been in direct contact with Japan,” Fujioka said of the detentions. “For most families, including mine, nothing changed.”

On the mainland United States, Japanese families were interned. In Hawaii, that never happened, Fujioka said.

“Hawaii is laid back, accepting. My father owned and drove a cab, and no one ever bothered him about being Japanese,” he said.

Fujioka’s parents had been born in Japan, but their nine children — seven boys, two girls — were all born in Hawaii. By the end of the war, three of the brothers would be drafted, including Fujioka.

“I was drafted in 1945 and never saw action in that war,” he said, “But my unit was the first to go into Korea, and I was in Vietnam. I spent 22 years in the Army.”

Early in his Army career, he was stationed in Japan.

“Tokyo was in ruins, burned out,” Fujioka said. “My father had been born in Hiroshima, but I never went there.

“I met my wife in Japan, on a train. I had time to talk to her and got her address. A few weeks later, I called on her. Her name was Ichiko, but I called her ‘Irene.’

“I lost her four years ago.”

By the time Fujioka left the service, the family had no formal home, but they remembered loving the area around Fort Lewis while stationed there.

“We came back and made this our home,” Fujioka said. “All four of my daughters live in Washington. I have six grandchildren.”

Laura Burt remembers the girls and the grandchildren. A neighbor of the Fujioka family for 27 years, she said they were always part of the block, taking part in whatever happened to be going on.

“When my husband was ill, Mr. Fujioka would come water my flowers, take my trash to the curb, do little things for me,” she said. “He’s a quiet, kind man. I know his grandchildren took him to Japan one time.”

“I heard the story of Pearl Harbor, but I think it was from his wife,” Burt said.

That’s likely. Fujioka doesn’t talk about it. When we met for coffee this week, I asked when he’d last told someone outside of his family about Pearl Harbor.

“You mean, like a stranger?” he asked.

OK, a stranger.

Fujioka stared across the table, smiling lightly.

“You’re the first,” he said.

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638 larry.larue@thenewstribune.com

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