Sisters Share Pearl Harbor Memories
by Janet Welsh, OP, and Mary Paynter, OP
Are you old enough to remember the date, Dec. 7, 1941? Two of our Sisters closely experienced the terrifying moments of that sudden, devastating attack at Pearl Harbor, Oahu, HI. A third Sister—Frances Consuelo Ibarley, OP—was just a 4-year-old with her family in nearby Honolulu where all could see the fires and hear the explosions that fateful morning.
Of the two living nearest Pearl Harbor, vivid memories were recorded in interviews and written notebooks. Sister Chia ta Liana—Milla Derby, OP (1926–2015)—was a teenager whose father then worked in ship building at the naval harbor; the other was Sister Alice Veronica Haley, OP (1903–1987), then a 38-year-old American woman, a civilian who served as a secretary to Brigadier General Jacob H. Rudolph. Both would later become Sinsinawa Dominicans;
neither could ever forget the confusion and terror of that morning.
Milla recalled that on that fateful Sunday she and her family were getting ready to go to Methodist church services. “My father came into the house and said there are shots flying and puffs of smoke everywhere. We turned the radio on and heard, ‘This is war; this is war.’ We were up on Diamond Head about 20 minutes from the harbor, so we could see Pearl Harbor burning—the great big oil tanks and the ships; and the planes kept zooming in and out. My father was called to go down to the harbor, and as the day went on, the noise and the turmoil continued. We were warned that the wells may be poisoned; I lost my voice I was so frightened. My father finally got home after dark, and my sister called, ‘Daddy’s home; Daddy’s home.’ The roof of his car and the back seat were missing. He had to climb under the car to escape the explosions. We spent a terrible night, wondering if we would have to go up to a cave to hide. Then, the next morning, there wasn’t a sound. . . . At that time we didn’t know we were so helpless.”
Ironically, it was Pearl Harbor that led to Milla becoming a Dominican Sister of Sinsinawa. The schools in Hawaii were all closed, so her mother arranged with the Sisters at a nearby Catholic school for Milla to take piano lessons and her sister to take violin lessons (to keep them busy!). Milla recalled that she liked the music classes so much that she wanted to major in music in college. Later, when her family was discussing where she was to go to school in the United States, Oberlin seemed the answer (several cousins had gone there). But Milla asked to go to a Catholic college called Rosary College (now Dominican University, River Forest, IL) because her close friend Leonora was going there. Milla recalled that her parents said, “Oh, no! You’re not a Catholic.” But she persisted, and her mother finally said, “Well, go for one year, and then transfer.” The rest, as they say, is a chapter in Sinsinawa Dominican history.
Alice Veronica rarely talked about the day Pearl Harbor was attacked—the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt described as “the date which will live in infamy.” She authored a 116-page account filled with vivid personal impressions of the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
Prior to entering our Congregation in 1943, Alice Veronica worked for Jacob H. Rudolph who was commander of the 18th Bombardment at Hickam Field adjacent to Pearl Harbor. Alice lived in a boarding house in Honolulu. At 7:48 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, a loud banging on her door awakened her from a sound sleep; she heard planes overhead and then received the alarming news that the islands were being attacked by enemy planes. She remembered, “Looking out upon the fragrant loveliness of Honolulu, it was hard to realize that the wings of death were hovering above.”
She left her apartment for safer accommodations. Journeying to Sacred Heart Catholic Academy for girls, she saw “a crowd waiting at the bus stop when the planes flew over. Their faces were terror stricken, and there was a notable mixture of races—that morning there were no such things as creeds or races; we all belonged to one race, the human race.”
Nearby St. Patrick School served as a Red Cross Hospital. “Ambulances screamed in and their shrieking sirens striking cold terror in our hearts. There were periods of quiet punctuated by the patients needing emergency operations . . .” and she “had never heard anything as pitiful as a boy screaming while getting his leg amputated.”
A second wave of Japanese fighters shelled and bombed Alice Veronica’s workplace, Hickam Field. The attack began at 8:40 a.m. and lasted until 9:45 a.m. Nearly half of the airplanes at Hickam Field had been destroyed or severely damaged. Alice and a coworker went to the field. “Riding out to the field, we gazed about with horror.” The damage was incredible. Many buildings on the base were destroyed or damaged. Her own office was riddled with bullet holes and bomb fragments. She recalled, “I was really scared, but I knew that in being at the field, I was doing what I had to do if I expected to respect myself for the rest of my life. I would never again pass this way—never have these days to live over again—and I didn’t want any regrets.”
Alice Veronica would have nothing to regret. She listened compassionately to the airmen who saw soldiers being machine-gunned down, comforted those suffering from shell shock, and calmed the frightened academy girls with her gentle presence and prayer. Alice Veronica felt personally responsible to help the girls and soldiers. She was able to encourage, give spiritual strength, and cheer them. “It just may be that this was part of God’s plan in my being where I was at that time.”
Materials for this article, including transcripts of interviews and documents, were provided by Sinsinawa Archivist Cassie Vazquez.