Surviving Children Remember Pearl Harbor Day

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Captain Shoemaker holds baby Katya, flanked by sons Tom and Jim (holding Fritzi, the family dog). Tom Shoemaker later said Fritzi never fully recovered from the trauma of the bombing. Submitted photo.

A sailor, badly burned from flaming oil, swam through a sea of fire to be carried into a fortified shelter on Ford Island after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. In shock, terribly disfigured and about to die, he tried to shield himself from the children moving about the room. “These are children. They shouldn’t see this,” he protested. 

It was the children, though, who had pulled him in through the gun turrets of the old fort underneath the home of Admiral Patrick Bellinger, the senior air officer. “We were doing our jobs,” said Patricia Kauffmann, Bellinger’s daughter, who now lives in Free Union and was in charge of helping the men who escaped the ship. Every woman and child was needed as fires blazed and bombs fell. But the sailor was right about one thing: the children, sons and daughters of military men stationed on the tiny island, never forgot what they saw that awful day. “I remember every detail of every minute,” Kauffmann said, 80 years after the attack. “Sometimes I wish I didn’t.” 

Up until 7:45 or so of that December day, the children had an idyllic life. They all knew each other, running wild around the tiny island and attending school by boat each day.  Kauffmann was 14 in 1941 and had recently been chosen to christen a much-anticipated new ferry that would transport Ford Island residents to Oahu. “It wasn’t because of my own merits,” she said. “It was because my father was the admiral.” She said that she had been frustrated because the wine bottle wouldn’t break even as the ferry was slowly leaving its mooring.

Patricia Kauffmann and Katya Spicuzza meet Dec. 7 to commemorate the attack on Pearl Harbor. Both were there 80 years ago.

Rear Admiral Patrick Bellinger commanded Patrol Wing 2 on the island. According to some accounts, he was the one who announced the Japanese air attack, famously adding, “This is no drill.” Within hours, the shelter underneath his home––the children called it “the dungeon”––was crowded with men who’d jumped from the boats on battleship row, swam through burning water and now lay in pain on the floor, or on mattresses hastily delivered from other places on the island. Many of them had their clothes burned off and were covered with officer’s uniforms. In a letter written December 12, 1941, Kauffmann’s mother, Miriam Bellinger, estimated there were 200 or so in the cramped space, including the military wives and children and the injured men who crawled to the house, while the women did what they could to nurse them. For a couple of hours, the attack continued, the pilots swooping so low to the ground that the children could see their faces. 

That wasn’t the only horror, Kauffmann recalled. The smell of burning flesh was everywhere. The water lines had been hit, so there was no running water to clean the rooms or the wounded, no functional bathrooms and nothing to drink. The women began dipping water from the swimming pool, and boiling it on little burners. Babies cried, and a few people became hysterical with fear. When the bombing stopped, women ran home to grab cans of pineapple juice and soda and whatever they could find in the way of food that didn’t need cooking. Fearing another attack, they all returned to the concrete shelter.

Also taking cover in the shelter were the Bellingers’ neighbors, the Shoemakers. Captain Shoemaker was commanding officer of the Ford Island Naval Air Station, and his young sons, Tommy and Jimmy, were part of the gang of children who played together around the base and, as instructed, they joined their friends under the Admiral’s house. Their younger sister, Katya, was seven months old when her mother, Francesca, ducked into the basement with the baby in her arms. 

Historian Katrina Luksovsky compiled the accounts of the surviving children and published them in 2014. She estimates there are ten children still living: the baby, Katya (now Katya Spicuzza) said there are now nine, due to a recent death. Three of the survivors live in Virginia, and two––Kauffmann and Spicuzza (now 94 and 80)––live in Albemarle County, Spicuzza in Crozet. 

Patricia Bellinger (now Kauffmann), far left, christened the new Ford Island Ferry before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In early December, the two former neighbors met for lunch to commemorate the day of the attack, just as they’ve done several times since they re-discovered each other. Over soup and sandwiches, they recalled those who shared those historic hours. “I was just a baby when I was thrown into the mix,” Spicuzza said, “so I have no memories of it.” Her brother Tom contributed to Luksovsky’s collection and her brother James (now deceased) included his memories in a short autobiography.

In various ways, though, their shared history has had a profound effect on both their lives. Their two families, and most of the other families, left the island as soon as possible, staying in temporary homes until they sailed to America without the fathers. Some of the children who recorded their memories said the families were sent away, not only for their own safety, but because worry about their wellbeing was distracting the officers. As they sailed from the island, Kauffmann said she could see men swarming over the still-burning ships, trying desperately to drill through the heavy steel to reach any survivors. 

Both the admiral and the captain stayed behind, later went on to other commands, and were honored throughout their careers. Both women have returned to Ford Island: Kauffmann on her way to the South Pacific; Spicuzza for a special anniversary ceremony commemorating the attack.

Their mothers had different reactions to the trauma. Francesca Shoemaker boycotted Japanese products until the day she died, but Kauffmann recalls that her mother, Miriam Bellinger, called on the wife of the Japanese ambassador, who was interred in Virginia until the end of the war. 

Meanwhile, their daughters have struggled to understand why their parents never told them anything about that awful day. “I don’t think they even talked among themselves,” Spicuzza said, “and certainly not to us.” 

They speculate that it was too shocking, too horrible to even contemplate, but that doesn’t totally explain it. “It’s always puzzled me,” Kauffmann said. “There’s so much more I would like to know, but they never talked about it, not a word. Never.”

Some of the background for the above comes from Katrina Luksovsky’s book, Ford Island December 7, 1941, and used with her permission. 

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