Vet lives through Pearl Harbor, Korean War
November 9, 2013 10:05AM
Don Wallace, right, with wife Atsuko, left, and daughter Donna, middle. | Jeff Manes~for Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 11, 2013 6:12AM
“The willingness of America’s veterans to sacrifice for our country has earned them our lasting gratitude.”
— U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller
Like his father before him and both his brothers, Don Wallace is a veteran. He served in the Navy for four years during and after the Korean War.
Wallace, 81, is a retired steelworker who lives in Portage with his wife, Atsuko. They have raised have raised three children. Their daughter, Donna, sat in on our conversation.
“I was born in Honolulu,” Wallace began. “At the time, Hawaii was just a territory, not a state.”
Was your father stationed in Hawaii?
“Yes, he stayed there for 22 years, until 1944. We actually lived on Pearl City peninsula. It’s a finger going right into Pearl Harbor.”
That means you were there during the attack on Dec. 7, 1941.
“That’s right, I was 9. Mom was making pancakes for breakfast, and then we were going to go to church. All of sudden big booms started rattling the house. It sounded like thunder. We went outside and there was one of those Japanese torpedo bombers flying over our house. I could have hit it with a rock. You could see the big red circle under the wing.”
The rising sun.
“I also could see the pilot looking down at me. He was wearing goggles.”
You’re the third person I’ve interviewed who was at Pearl on that fateful day.
“My dad was a rigger with the Navy. He thought it was maneuvers. He had all of us get into the car so we could watch. Our house was only three or four blocks from the shore. I remember looking through the windshield between my mom and dad from the backseat of the car. I saw a plane flying toward one of our ships. It dropped a bomb or two, but missed — water splashed. A second plane came. That one didn’t miss. And that’s when dad said: ‘This ain’t no maneuver.’ He turned the car around and took us back home. We were still in our pajamas.”
What a shock that must have been on a peaceful Sunday morning.
“Up until that moment, the islands were truly a paradise.”
The bombings came in two waves, did they not?
“Yes, the neighbors were all out by then. One fella at the end of the block was shooting at the planes with a pistol from his front yard.”
Was he a civilian?
“Yeah, just one of the neighbors. They had to evacuate the peninsula because whenever the planes made their dive bombing runs they had to come right over our houses. Stray machine gun bullets were hitting the houses — shrapnel, too. I gave Donna one of the bullets that was lodged into the side of our house. She had a necklace made out of it. It has ‘Dec. 7, 1941’ etched into it.
“Women and children were taken to a mountain in Pearl City. We watched the rest of the attack from the mountain. It poured that night; luckily we had a large tent. There was some Japanese people right next to us; they built a shelter off the side of the mountain. They were scared to death because everybody was hollering at them. The Japanese military was attacking us, so everybody was mad at the Japanese people.”
Were there quite a few people in that area who were Japanese-born?
“Hawaii was probably 50 percent Japanese at that time. A true Hawaiian is darker-skinned. The Hawaiian islands were home to all sorts of people. My mother is from Hawaii; her parents came there from Portugal. We had German-born friends there. There were Puerto Ricans, Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos...”
What a horrible thing war is. Here you had all those people from all walks of life living in harmony in a paradise.
“By the second wave, our ships were firing back. I saw one American plane. Somehow, a guy had gotten up there in a Piper Cub. He was flying amongst all those Mitsubishi-made bombers.”
Holy mackerel. Did he survive?
“Yeah, I think he did. Seems like there have been some articles written about him. But the Japanese didn’t pay much attention to him; they were more concerned with bombing our ships.”
I bet your dad was working around the clock for a while.
“We didn’t see dad for more than a week. When we did get in contact with him, he told mom how he had to clean the blood from the bulkheads and remove the body parts of our sailors.
“But the first thing they had to do was try to rescue those who were still alive in overturned ships. Dad said you could hear guys tapping to let you know they were trapped.”
“Some were rescued, some weren’t.”
Don, let’s switch gears. What happens to the Wallace family after Pearl Harbor?
“My dad’s family is from a small coal mining town called Westville, Ill. When his brother got killed in a mining accident, dad decided to come back to the states. He opened up a small tavern. He had a falling out with his partner because the guy had his hand in the till. My dad sold his half of the business.
“Eventually, we moved to Gary. Dad was hired as a rigger at Inland Steel Co.”
What about you?
“After graduating from Horace Mann (High School), I got a job at Inland as a metallurgical tester in the Tin Mill. After about a year, I joined the Navy. Me, my dad and my brother Wally were all Navy. My oldest brother was the black sheep because he went into the Army. He was six years older than me and saw action during the tail end of World War II in the Philippines.”
Your time in the service?
“I was a radioman stationed in Guam and Japan. My plane was a converted B-26. The Navy designates that plane as a JD-1.”
Is Japan where you met your wife?
“Yes, we were married at the American consulate. That was one of the duties they could do. The guy called over a couple of the secretaries to be witnesses and he married us on the spot.”
Hats off to Don Wallace and all those men and women who have served or are serving this country.