Pearl Harbor Child: an Interview with Dorinda Nicholson

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban
December 6, 2016
The Christmas Story by Robert Sabuda
December 8, 2016

Her father was from Kansas City; her mother was native Hawaiian, and Dorinda Makanaonalani Stagner grew up on Pearl City Peninsula, just around the bend from the home of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.  Dad worked at the Honolulu Post office and Mom had a job at the Pan-American World Airways Clipper Base.  In the fall of 1941, Dorinda started first grade at Sacred Heart Convent in Nu-uanu, “But I wouldn’t finish out the year there, because of events that were beyond my control . . .”dorinda

Those events began with “a day that shall live in infamy.”  That Sunday morning, 75 years ago, the family was sitting down to breakfast when the sound of low-flying planes bore down on their little house, followed by ear-splitting explosions.  Dad jumped up and ran outside, followed by Dorinda.  “The planes were so low, just barely above the roof tops, that we could see the pilots’ faces and even the goggles that covered their eyes.  Though they couldn’t be heard over the roar of the engines, incendiary bullets found their targets: “Our kitchen was now on fire and parts of the roof were gone.”  Across the harbor, battleship Utah slowly turned over on its side.  “Everywhere we looked there was smoke and fire.  The odor of burning oil hung over the harbor.”  (Quotes from Pearl Harbor Child)

As soon as Dad hollered at the family to jump in the car so he could drive to safety, military police careened down the road in their jeeps, ordering all civilians to get their cars out of the way.  Immediately after came truckloads of servicemen, some of them hanging onto tailgates while others struggled into their clothes.  Inside the house, the radio blared: “Air raid!  This is no maneuver! This is the real McCoy!”

dorinda-phcDorinda was six years old, and her life had changed forever.  In the 1990s she began gathering memories of other survivors of that day, including her Japanese neighbors, Hawaiian friends and relatives, and American servicemen stationed in the Harbor, recollections that became part of her book, Pearl Harbor Child, published in 2001.  She’s been a regular attendee and speaker at many commemoration events in Hawaii and elsewhere.  Today, making her home in Kansas City with her husband Larry, she speaks to countless school groups about her own experiences and other books she’s written about World War II.  I (Janie) am happy to say she’s also my friend, and took the time while in Hawaii for the 75th anniversary commemoration to answer a few questions:

How would you describe your life before and your life after Dec. 7, 1041?

Before, I was just a normal kid living on the Island, doing what normal kids do.  I remember riding my bike down to the harbor and catching crabs on the beach.  After, it was miles of barbed wire everywhere, damp bomb shelters, no meat (because of rationing), blackouts every night.  Those were fun at first, because I could read in bed by flashlight, but on warm nights the heavy blackout curtains made the house hot and stuffy.  Everyone, even small children, was issued a gas mask and we were supposed to carry them with us at all times in a brown canvas bag that slung over one shoulder.  My brother’s bag was almost as tall as he was!

How would you compare your story with the others in Remember World War II: Kids Who Survived Tell Their Stories (published by National Geographic, 2015)?

First, the USA experienced only two hours of bombing during the whole war, and that was only in Hawaii [small exception: the Fu-Go project, featured in My Friend the Enemy].  In England, Japan, and Germany, civilian kids were sometimes bombed every day.  Women, kids, and those too old to fight are the real victims of bombing wars, but we seldom hear their stories.  That’s why I was pleased to get the chance to give them a voice in Remember World War II.

In general terms, how dodorinda-rwwii children experience war?

Again, they’re the true victims, but how they experience war depends mostly on their age.  While researching Remember World War II I learned that children under the age of five or so were often the most traumatized because they had no voice.  My brother Ishmael, who was only a toddler at the time, slept through the Pearl Harbor bombing, but later had persistent nightmares.  The “best” age, if there is such a thing, is around six to ten, because you have a partial understanding of what’s going on and can ask questions of your parents, but at the same time you’re somewhat protected from the worst news.  From age 12 and up, you can share some responsibilities with the adults and keep busy.

How would you rate your understanding of what was going on at the time?

At six years old, I didn’t understand much.  It was enough to have my parents nearby, and as long as they were okay, so was I.  My baby brother had a harder time with the nightmares and not being able to articulate his fears.

What was the most fun aspect of the war years for you?  What was the most difficult?

At first the blackouts were fun—sitting in the dark was like a game.  Also, no school!  At least at first.  With all the reorganizing and preparing for another Japanese attack, such as issuing gas masks and holding air raid drills, we didn’t have to go back to school until February.

But there were plenty of downsides, of course.  We couldn’t get any mail or use the phone for a long time after the attack.  Dad’s parents still lived in Kansas City, and they couldn’t reach us for six weeks—all that time they didn’t know if we were okay or not.  There was a strict curfew throughout the war: we couldn’t leave the house from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.  Many of the women and children were sent away to the mainland.  Civilians had a choice whether to leave or go, and my family chose to stay, but most of my friends left. In their place came thousands of service men, with the usual accessories: bars, tattoo parlors, houses of ill fame.  Oh, and carrying that heavy, ugly gas mask everywhere—that was not fun.

How would you say the experience changed your life, not so much physically as mentally, emotionally, and spiritually?

I feel so connected with the Harbor; that I’m truly a child of history.  Because only a handful of kids stayed throughout the war, I feel I have an obligation to tell our story, and that of the servicemen too.  I feel the spirit of the men still entombed there.

What one thing would you like your young readers to know about war and turmoil?

War is hell, plain and simple.  Even when it’s over the effects continue in bitter feelings and hard hearts.  But you can move from hatred to peace.  One of the most moving experiences of my life occurred on December 6, 2000.  A small group of Japanese veterans, three of whom actually participated in the Pearl Harbor attack, returned to the Harbor for a special ceremony.  After speeches in English and Japanese, a row of American veterans stood facing a row of their former enemies.  One by one they stepped forward and shook hands, exchanging Hawaiian leis as a token of friendship.  With time it’s possible to forgive.

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Thanks, Dorinda!  We recommend Pearl Harbor Child as a one-of-a-kind memoir that even very young children can relate to.  For older children, Remembering World War II: Kids Who Survived Tell Their Stories is a worthwhile read.

Dorinda shared her story in recent TV interview from Hawaii!

1 Comment

  1. Betsy says:

    What a great interview, Janie! And so timely.

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