Friday, December 5, 1941, was boat day in Honolulu, Hawaii. A white Matson liner would round Koko Head, then Diamond Head, and then pull up to the dock in the morning with its load of vacationers. They would disembark at the Aloha Tower to the strains of “Aloha Oe” and the fragrant leis of tourist guides. I remember how the haunting melody, played on steel guitars, brought tears to my eyes when I first landed on the island of Oahu to teach at the local Adventist school.

Long before mail went by air, we needed to get our Christmas greetings on their way early. If we took them to the post office Friday morning, they would go out on the Matson liner Friday night when it returned to California, and they would reach our mainland friends before Christmas.

On Thursday evening, I, along with the three other single female teachers I lived with, wrote Christmas cards about how beautiful and peaceful Honolulu was that balmy December. We knew, of course, about talks going on in Washington, DC, with Japanese envoys: the usual brinkmanship that nations play with one another. Someone would blink first, we reasoned. No one in their right mind wanted war. There was enough of that going on in Europe.

On Sabbath morning, December 6, I started to climb the rim of Punchbowl, a burned-out crater a mile or two from Hawaiian Mission Academy, to watch the sunrise. I decided to take a shortcut, scrambling through brush up the steep slope. Just before I reached the top, a soldier armed with a rifle ordered me to stop. “You can’t come up here!” he shouted.

“Can I come if I go around by the road?”

“No!” he insisted. “Off-limits to all civilians.”

Earlier in the week, I had seen sentries guarding a lot of the intersections. Something about a military alert scheduled to end at midnight Saturday night.

After church, a few of us had a picnic lunch at the beach. We could hear the gentle lapping of the waves on the sandy shore and the rustling of the palm leaves in the trees. The slightly fishy smell of the ocean mingled with the aroma of our picnic food.

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Taken by surprise

Sunday morning was the usual time for army maneuvers on Oahu. We were used to hearing military noises and thought nothing of the distant boom of artillery. While doing the breakfast dishes, one of my roommates remarked, “I wish they’d take their war farther away. They’re making too much noise.”

As I walked across the tiny park separating our home from the academy to grade papers in my classroom, I noticed a lot of black specks in the sky. I remember thinking, They’re wasting an awful lot of ammunition in their games today.

I looked forward to seeing how my students had performed on a test I had given on Friday. They were a mixed group: the majority Japanese, some Chinese, a few Koreans, Filipinos, and Hawaiians. I was teaching both English and French, and for many of them, English was a foreign language.

Fresh from southern California, where automatic respect for the teacher wasn’t so much a part of the culture, even in those long-ago days, I reveled in my relationship with the Asians. They were taught at home to prize the chance to learn, to honor the teacher, and to appreciate the privilege of an education. I looked forward to giving a lot of high marks on their papers.

Reaching the academy, I found the faculty men gathered to pray for protection. They told me to go home and stay inside. Unexploded shells, fired wildly in the excitement by United States (US) armed forces, were falling back on the city and killing people within three blocks of where we lived.

I raced home, turned on the radio, and heard that the rising-sun emblem had been spotted on the wings of the attacking planes. A little later, some of the faculty were working on a ditch for a sewer line just outside my window. Among them was our beloved teacher of special English, Richard Gima. We had many students born under the American flag but sent to Japan by their parents for a Japanese education. On their return, they had to learn English, and Richard taught them so well that they always scored high on standardized tests. He was born a few months before his parents immigrated to Hawaii, so he grew up in the American culture of the islands but remained a Japanese citizen.

As he joined the group, I heard him ask, “What country is attacking us?” He must have had the wistful hope that some other country was responsible.

“Japan,” Principal Frank Rice told him. From that moment on, Richard knew he would be considered an “enemy alien.”

The actual blackout that went into effect that night was no darker than the figurative one that fouled relationships between ethnic Japanese, even those loyal to the United States, and many Americans on the mainland. Some forgot the longstanding friendship with Japan and turned against people who were as lovable as ever.

“We took courage from the assurance that God was still in charge.”

Prayers for faith

At school, the Week of Prayer had just begun. That Sunday evening, in the gloom of the blackout, we carefully found our way across the little park to the principal’s home. Using a flashlight in the darkened room, he read a selection from The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald [now Adventist Review]. On our lonely island, 2,000 miles from the mainland and wide open to enemy attack, we took courage from the assurance that God was still in charge. We were there doing His work for our students, many of them non-Christians.

Before another Sabbath, the beach we had picnicked on was crisscrossed with a maze of barbed wire. Instead of white Matson liners, we saw camouflaged warships of all kinds, rushed from the mainland to replace the sunken wrecks lying at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.

Severe military discipline was meted out to the top US officers who should have been responsible for preventing a surprise attack, but nothing could bring back the thousands who had needlessly died.

The US military didn’t believe it could happen, and it wasn’t prepared.

My memories of that Sunday morning came back to me in a rush as I watched the reports of the terrorist attacks on a beautiful Tuesday morning in September 2001. The event reminded me that there are very few certainties in life. In a heartbeat, our lives can be changed irrevocably by circumstances far beyond our control.

We can be truly prepared for life-changing tragedies only when our characters are anchored to Christ by our faith in Him. When we are called to experience the unexpected, our faith will have to carry us. It’s all we can hold on to.

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Irene Wakeham Lee
 is a retired writer and missionary schoolteacher who lives in Tennessee, United States.