By Samantha L. Quigley
Editor’s Note: The interviews for this story were conducted in 2011 for the 70th commemoration of the attacks on Pearl Harbor. Mercedes “Edith” Valdriz, a Hawaii resident who was teenager at the time of the attacks, died in September 2015.
On December 8, 1941, Franklin Roosevelt referred to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor the previous day as a “date which will live in infamy.”
As the Hawaiian island of Oahu woke up December 7, the weather was temperate and few clouds littered its skies. There was little indication the U.S. possession would ever gain any more notoriety than it already had earned as a tropical paradise.
Yes, it was a strategic location for the U.S. Navy to base its Pacific Fleet in hopes of discouraging Japanese aggression into the Far East. But World War II had been raging on the other side of the globe since 1939, and the United States was currently negotiating with Japan over the embargo of needed war supplies it had placed on the empire in 1940.
There was little reason to think the war would spread to American shores.
Hawaii was considered too far south to be the focus of a Japanese attack, yet on December 7, 1941, at 1 a.m., five Japanese submarines came within 15 miles of the Oahu coast. Each launched a Type A midget submarine with a two-man crew.
The once-doubted attack had begun, though no one would realize it for several hours.
When the attack ended, 2,400 Americans had been killed, five of the eight U.S. battleships had been sunk or were sinking, and several other ships—along with most of the Hawaii-based combat planes—had been knocked out of commission.
Those who survived witnessed what has been referred to as America’s darkest day. Their experiences aren’t noted in history books, but they paint a much fuller picture of what happened.
Alfred Rodrigues, USN
Alfred Benjamin Kameiamoku Rodrigues, a native Hawaiian, was not assigned to a ship on the morning of December 7, 1941. The sailor was stationed at Section Base at Bishop Point at the mouth of the harbor. He and his unit were responsible for providing logistics to small craft docked nearby and for maintaining the submarine nets that spanned the harbor to prevent enemy boats from gaining access.
“I had a 4 to 8 a.m. watch,” Rodrigues said. “When you get a 4 to 8 watch, in the old days, you get up at 3:30. When I … relieved the watch the quartermaster on deck told me that at 3:30 one of our destroyers, the USS Ward, had dropped depth charges on an unidentified submarine.”
The submarine turned out to be one of the Japanese two-man midget submarines, and Rodrigues said the wreckage still sits about a mile outside the harbor. International law states that only the country that owns the sub can recover the wreckage.
It was 7:45 a.m. and his breakfast tray had just hit the table when the general quarters alarm sounded. What he saw as he ran to the armory left him astounded.
“We could see the airplanes above with the red circles on the bottom,” he said. “We knew it was Japanese.
“They gave us old rifles, you know, you shoot one shot at a time,” he remembered. “I think I shot only about 10 times at all, until they called all the military back to active duty. By that time, one of the officers came, took my gun away and told me to open the warehouse. I was a third class storekeeper at the time.”
Rodrigues did what he was told, but with no weapon to defend himself he felt naked. To compound that feeling, the warehouse was alongside what was then the Army Air Corps base. The Japanese were bombing the planes that had been situated wingtip to wingtip in the open to prevent sabotage, as well as the hangars.
“We were in one of the buildings right at the end of the hangers. So, it was kind of scary,” Rodrigues said. “After awhile you accept it. If it happens, it happens.
“It only lasted for two hours and it was all over. Then it got real quiet.”
Rodrigues describes the scene after the attack as a mess but he’s remembering not only the physical damage to the ships, planes, and buildings, but also the lives lost and the perceptions altered.
“We had a Japanese man coming in to pick up the slop cans from the pigs,” he said. “The [chief] had a gun and was going to shoot him—just [because] the guy was Japanese. Otherwise he would have killed that guy and that would have been terrible. The poor guy was just doing his duty.”
The aftermath also brought with it restricted communications. Rodrigues’ sister was living in Kapahulu, just outside of Waikiki but he couldn’t call to let her know he was OK. Thankfully the bread deliveryman was a neighbor and Rodrigues was able to get a message to his sister when she got her next loaf of bread.
“I felt pretty good after that,” he said.
It was about a month before Rodrigues could reach his father who still lived on the island of Kauai. “The phones were restricted completely for emergencies,” he said.
Six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Rodrigues found himself aboard the USS Washington. “I spent two years in the Pacific and we saw much more action than Pearl Harbor,” he said. “We bombarded different islands. We were in different battles … had torpedo experiences and everything.
“Really, I enjoyed being aboard the battleship during the war because, considering the size of the ship—and we had three destroyers as escorts—we felt pretty safe, believe it or not.”
Sterling Cale, USN
Sterling Robert Cale’s official Navy rate was Pharmacist Mate Second Class. In layman’s terms, he was a hospital corpsman assigned to the dispensary in the Navy yard. Early on December 7, 1941, he had finished his shift and was heading home.
“I got off duty about 6:30 a.m. and had to walk about three-quarter’s of a mile down to the main gate,” Cale remembered. “Then we had to go in and sign out with the master-at-arms because everybody in or out of the Navy yard had to sign in and out.”
That was about 7 a.m. When he looked back toward the harbor, what he saw baffled him—then horrified him.
“I looked over toward Battleship Row and the planes were already diving on the battle wagons,” he said. “‘What’s wrong? We don’t train on Sunday.’ Then I saw one of the planes turn off and saw the Rising Sun on the fuselage and wing. ‘My God! Those are Japanese planes!’”
He ran to the receiving station, grabbed the fire axe to break down the armory door and started handing out single-shot rifles to anyone who wanted one.
“They were firing from the main gate clear out to where the Arizona and the Missouri are, so I don’t think they ever hit anything,” Cale said. “Just too much distance.”
Because he was a corpsman, he didn’t get a weapon. Instead, he went back out to 1010 Dock and watched the attack, which by then included Japanese torpedo bombers dropping torpedoes no more than 20 feet above the water.
“I saw about nine or 10 of them were going to hit the USS Oklahoma, so I ran down the dock and [took] the officer’s barge and we headed out toward the Oklahoma,” he said. “With so much activity in the water, we never did get there. I only picked up 46 people in four hours—some of them dead already. Some of them badly wounded, some badly burned. Some were just tired because they got blown off the ship or jumped off.”
After a full shift overnight and all the excitement and exertion of the morning, Cale was ready to head home and get some much-needed sleep. The master-at-arms had news for him, though.
“‘Oh, you can’t go home. You’re going to be court-martialed for breaking into the armory.’” Cale remembered with a wry chuckle. “I said, ‘But aren’t we supposed to protect ourselves?’”
The answer to Cale’s question would have rattled the most stoic of men. “Yes, that’s right, but Navy regulations say in peace time you have to sign out your weapon and ammo and when you’re through firing, you sign them back in,” was the by-the-book reply.
Luckily for Cale, President Roosevelt declared war on Japan the next day and turned the sailor’s court-martial into an award and a carton of cigarettes.
Court-martial or no court-martial, Cale didn’t make it home December 7. The master-at-arms made him stand guard at the door of the receiving station—with a rifle in hand. He stood there until the medical admiral from Camp Smith came down and relieved him with a reminder that pharmacists don’t carry weapons and the promise of another assignment.
What Cale remembers most vividly about that night is the glow from the Arizona.
“The USS Arizona had taken a bomb from 15,000 feet up. That 1,500-pound bomb went down through one, two, three, four steel decks and hit the ammunition locker. The powder room blew up with a giant explosion,” he recalled. “In those days we were under black-out conditions. Nobody could show any lights anywhere on the island.
“So, the only light that was showing was the burning of the Arizona. It burned for two-and-a-half days.” By Wednesday, December 10, Cale had his new assignment—assemble a team of 10 men and begin recovery operations on the Arizona. He was honest with his team.
“I told them, ‘Men, I don’t know what we’re going to see on the Arizona. If a person’s been in the water that long—from Sunday to Friday of the next week—the body starts to blow up,’” he said. “We had a lot of fish in the water—24, 25 kinds.”
The first thing Cale remembers seeing when they arrived at the Arizona was black ash blowing off the ship. “I said, ‘What am I going to do? I don’t have anything to stop ashes,’” he said, looking into the distance. “I just sort of sank down and shed a few tears.”
The “what to do” was as easy as the orders he’d been given by the admiral—pick them up, bring them in, put them in sea bags and send them up to Red Hill for temporary burial. That was frequently easier said than done. Helmet liners were strewn across the ship but there were no bodies nearby. The bodies—with no heads—were found elsewhere.
“That must have been the black ashes that were blowing off the ship.”
“A lot of the men were just piles of ashes, especially behind the big guns because they just burned right down through the deck,” he said. “I think the last thing we saw was a bunch of men in the aft fire control tower. They were going up the ladder there, and the fire caught them and they’d been reduced to solid charcoal.”
After three weeks of recovery operations, Cale asked to go home for the night. His request was met with another notice of a pending court-martial. This time the charge was keeping a war diary. “I know there’s a regulation. You can’t tell where the troops are going or how many are going there, but these are people that have died and I’m sending up to Red Hill. I’m not keeping any war diary,” he remembers telling the master-at-arms.
It didn’t matter. They burned his “war diary” and with it all the details of how many remains he’d recovered, but he wasn’t court-martialed.
He laughs now thinking about how he ended up on report for the diary. It was the chief pharmacist mate’s doing.
“I was in charge of the laboratory and pharmacy down at the ship yard dispensary. I’d give him a pint of ethyl alcohol once a month—190 proof. He hadn’t gotten his ration so he put me on report for keeping a war diary!”
Cale’s war didn’t end in Pearl Harbor. He was deployed with the 1st Marine Division to Guadalcanal as a hospital corpsman. He returned from that deployment and married his sweetheart on December 12, 1942. Then the Navy assigned him to a ship for three years.
“Nope. I ran down to Aloha Towers, saw the Army recruiter and joined the Army,” he said laughing.
With the Army, he served in Korea from 1950-1951 and had just returned when Army General John W. “Iron Mike” O’Daniel, then commanding general of U.S. Army Forces Pacific, and a fellow Shriner, informed Cale, “We’re going to Vietnam.”
“I said, ‘Well, go ahead,’” Cale said smiling.
O’Daniel won, and Cale went to Vietnam. After a tour that ended in 1965 when he returned to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, he retired with 26 years of service.
Two weeks later, the State Department called Cale, and his language skills, into service and he went back to Vietnam. By 1968, he was in the country with the United States Agency for International Development. Five years later he got some sage advice from friends.
“Finally, my Vietnamese friends said, ‘You better leave,’” he said. “I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.’”
He returned home and retired—again. He also visited the Arizona Memorial. He’d spent a total of six weeks recovering remains from the wreckage but had no idea how many souls he’d left behind. He was shocked to learn there had been 1,179 men aboard.
“What, 1,179 men on this ship? I left some 900 on there,” he said. “So, about once a week I go out and pay my respects to the people I left on the ship.”
When Cale retired the second time, he didn’t leave the military behind. He worked another 23 years at Schoffield Barracks for the Army Club system. When his position was cut he had 57 years of civil service to his credit.
Herb Weatherwax, USA
Herb Weatherwax, “Uncle Herb” to most, was home in Honolulu on a weekend pass when he heard a loud explosion. Turning to the radio in hopes of an explanation he learned his leave would be a few hours shorter than planned.
“They announced over the radio, ‘All military personnel report to your station immediately!’” he remembered. “That was continuously used over and over.”
The horrific scene was still unfolding as the bus taking Weatherwax and his fellow soldiers back to Schoffield Barracks passed Pearl Harbor. What they saw was mind-boggling.
“I was just shocked to see the Arizona was the cause of the sound. It was just engulfed in flames—just wrapped up in flames,” he said. “The Oklahoma … attracted my attention, too. It had keeled over at that time. The men—I could see little dark objects scrambling on the hull of the ship.”
As Wheeler Field came into view, so did the planes parked there. They too, were on fire, as were the hangers. The bus continued and the men worried the Japanese planes would strafe the bus along the winding route.
Arriving at Schoffield, the soldiers’ civilian clothes were discarded for uniforms and weapons and a convoy took them to their field positions in anticipation of staving off the Japanese land invasion that was sure to follow the air attack.
They held their position for days. The invasion never materialized, but that didn’t do much for the men’s frazzled nerves.
“We were still waiting and expecting an invasion. Everybody was all keyed up, especially at night,” Weatherwax said. “Everything that made a noise, a rustle, the machine gun got it. I think a lot of animals got killed as a result of that.”
When it was obvious the Japanese army wasn’t going to try and take the island, Weatherwax was reassigned to 272nd Infantry Regiment, 69th Infantry, which trained at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. There he got acquainted with snakes, chiggers, and wood ticks—something a native Hawaiian would never see at home.
“When I saw the first snake … it was a black snake. They said it was not poisonous,” he remembered. “I never did sleep on the ground. I made myself a hammock.
“The chiggers are mean. That is something I’ll never forget.”
Camp Shelby was just a training stop for Weatherwax and the men of the Fighting 69th. Soon he found himself in England and then France where his unit replaced the 99th Infantry Division in Belgium in February 1945.
Weatherwax remembers that time of his life vividly—dreadful cold, sleeping in a hole for a month, no showers, and the same old clothes.
“We rotated our socks. Took it from our foot and put it on our chest to dry out, then rotate,” he said. “I had trench foot and with all the snow, they’d get itchy but you couldn’t scratch it. That’s what I had to suffer through.
“I’m paying a price for that now. At the time I didn’t know this, but there were some that had gangrene,” he said. “Their toes turned black. I never got to that stage, but my nerves have been affected.” When his regiment moved inland from Belgium’s Eifel Forest to join up with Russian forces near the town of Torgau, Germany—the beginning of the line of contact between the two forces—the men knew the end of the war was near.
Mercedes Valdriz, Civilian
Mercedes “Edith” Valdriz was just a teenager when Japan attacked the Navy’s Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor. Her father worked on one of Oahu’s sugar cane plantations and the family lived in plantation housing. The house, along with many others, was situated between cane fields, which were surrounded by barbed wire to keep the children out.
Though she didn’t know it then, it was the Japanese planes that woke Valdriz that Sunday morning. She ran outside and—trying to get a better vantage point—climbed a light pole at the edge of one of the cane fields.
“I climbed on that post and I saw this plane pass my house,” she said. “It was shooting.
“We didn’t believe it was an attack. We said, ‘What are those’” My dad said, ‘That looks like a Japanese flag.’”
He was referring to the “Rising Sun” emblem on the wings and fuselage of the Japanese planes.
“I jumped down (and) scarred my arm on the barbed wire,” she said, pointing to the mark that’s still visible.
While the sight of the planes was scary enough, Valdriz learned later that if she hadn’t run out to watch the planes fly over, she may have been a casualty.
“We didn’t have any closets in the old plantation houses. You either hung clothes from the ceiling or you put nails on the wall,” she said. “Some of my dresses had holes in them—from the bullets!”
As it turns out, the Japanese pilots were using one of the nearby Oahu Sugar Company’s smoke stacks as a navigation marker. It was roughly due north of the harbor.
Valdriz’s life changed measurably after that morning.
“We didn’t have much life after that. Everything was clamped down,” she said. “Nobody could go out. That night, before nightfall … they started broadcasting, ‘Blacken your windows. Don’t go out unless you have a permit.’
“We had to carry a gas mask.”
Additionally, the men who worked the plantations were called on to work “war effort jobs.” Valdriz’s father was among those called on to support the war effort and spent most of the war digging tunnels and trenches. That left the cane fields for the women.
“About 1942, we were told to work out in the fields because most of the men were out doing war effort jobs,” Valdriz said. “Part of our credit in high school was to go work out in the fields and dig out the weeds.
“My girlfriend and I … we weren’t suited for that job,” she laughed, mentioning her father often took odd jobs for the military and was well-paid for his work, so she never really knew the hardships of plantation life.
“I had dolls. I had nice shoes and dresses.”
So, for the rest of the war, the girls earned their high school credits working with the Red Cross and the USO. They also served as junior wardens, checking to make sure residents’ windows were blackened.
At the Red Cross, the older women frequently warned Valdriz to make sure she rolled the bandages properly. Though she was always under the watchful eye of the chaperones, the USO assignment was more fun.
She served the GIs coffee and pastries and “talked stars” with them. She also learned from where on the mainland they hailed.
“We’d talk to them and we’d tell them where we grew up and they’d tell us, ‘Oh, I came from Tennessee,’” she said. “I coudn’t understand them!’”
Dancing, however, is a universal language and Valdriz pleasantly surprised the boys when they learned she could jitterbug. “The Navy guys were the best dancers,” she said smiling.
She also remembers one of the soldiers her brother befriended. The family embraced the young man who played boogie woogie piano and often gifted them rationed food items—coffee, butter, sugar and the like.
“I never asked him what his [job] was in the Army. I kind of guess he was in the kitchen,” she chuckled.
By 1945, Valdriz, 16, was working for the draft department checking the background of each civilian working at the Navy yard to see who was calling in sick too much or taking too many days off. Those were the ones she would recommend for the draft.
“I was 16!” she said. “Six months before I graduated, they moved me to shop O2—a painter, carpenter shop. My job was to help our leading man.”
The leading man was the head of the shop and Valdriz helped him by taking care of various tasks, including collecting and distributing the workers’ paychecks.
“After that I left, and it was the end of the war.”
Life After Infamy
After the war, Edith Valdriz went to college to study journalism, married her husband, Romy, and raised three children. The couple has been very involved in Hawaiian politics for years.
Though the plantation Valdriz grew up on was bulldozed and the land sold in 1959, she still calls it home.
The Valdrizes’ house sits on land that, at one time, was filled with fields of sugar cane. It came with an $11,000 price tag.
“I only paid $5,000 for this room, this room and this room,” she said pointing out the individual rooms. “Now you can’t even build a garage for $5,000!”
For Al Rodrigues, Sterling Cale, and Herb Weatherwax, the answer to their individual questions of what to do after retirement led them to a common interest. Each volunteers three days a week at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument.
Rodrigues, 91, said he does it because he doesn’t want to be a couch potato—and he can flirt with all the pretty girls.
“I know ‘You’re beautiful,’ in different languages,” he said explaining that park visitors are often from other countries. “I do that mostly because we have a little calabash, a little … coral bowl that we [take] donations in. The more I say it, the more donations we get!”
He’s also looking forward to the 70th anniversary commemorations that will span the week of December 7.
“It’s special and I’m hoping—it’s not too long, but I’m 91—that I can celebrate it. Yeah, it is special. It is very special.”
At 84, after Cale’s position at Schofield Barracks was cut, he again found himself wondering how he was going to fill his days. He, too, found his answer at the monument where he talks with visitors and signs autographs. Now 91, he continues his weekly trips to the Arizona to pay his respects to those he left behind.
Weatherwax, 94, enjoys volunteering at the monument. “I think it will prolong my life.”
He also takes every opportunity he gets to talk with today’s troops who come to the memorial. “I tell them they’re the heroes,” he said. “Our days are gone, long gone. They are the ones making it so that we can still retain our wonderful government.”
Weatherwax said he often talks with them about the strangeness of America. “We are the United States of America, and yet, we are the divided states of America,” he said. “That was the way it was before the Japanese attacked Hawaii. The way I understand it, they thought that by what they did America would disband because we were not together.
“They didn’t realize what they did. They united our country.”
All three men mentioned one of their favorite parts of volunteering at the monument is meeting Make-A-Wish children and escorting them to the Arizona.
While Rodrigues doesn’t visit the memorial often, he can be convinced for the right reason. “I go anytime [they] have a Make-A-Wish kid.”
These four witnesses to history leave little doubt about why theirs is known as The Greatest Generation.
What they witnessed, the hardships they endured, and the full and productive lives they led after the war are the very definition of that moniker.
–Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of On Patrol.
Stories in this Series
Dec 4, 2011
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