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West Sider remembers day of infamy in 1941

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Like practically every American who was alive at the time, Charleston resident Betty Kenna remembers where she was when Pearl Harbor came under attack. Unlike most, though, Kenna's story involves spending a night hiding in a tunnel and two weeks volunteering at a hospital treating burn victims.

Kenna, 88, was a freshman at the University of Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, when hundreds of warplanes from the Empire of Japan attacked the U.S. Navy base near Honolulu. Her father, U.S. Army Col. Walter C. Phillips, was chief of staff to Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short, who commanded the Hawaii Department of the Army at the time.

Now 88 years old, Kenna -- who graduated high school earlier than most -- was 15 or 16 at the time. The night before the attack, she had been out on a date with an Army lieutenant, she remembers. She was at home in bed when the attack started shortly before 8 a.m.

When the bombs started falling, her father took off immediately -- leaving her, her mother and her brother behind at their house.

"He said, 'Be prepared, an Army truck will come and get you. Bring a pillow and a blanket,'" Kenna said her father told them.

Just as he had said, a truck picked up the three of them and took them and other military families to a tunnel that was built to store fuel. The families stayed there three days and nights, hiding from any potential further attacks.

While they were there, Kenna said, two babies were born, and two older men died.

An Army truck brought them food: peanut butter, jelly and bread for sandwiches. Bottled water didn't exist, she said, so the families drank soda.

The second day after the attack, an official from an area hospital came to the tunnel asking for volunteers to treat the wounded.

Desperate for assistance, the hospital accepted help where it could get it, even from those without medical training, like Kenna. She spent the next two weeks helping treat burn victims.

There were lots of those, she said, because survivors of the initial Pearl Harbor attacks tried to swim through oil that burned as it floated on the water.

"I remember being nauseated," Kenna said, recalling seeing the burn victims with wounds that made their limbs swell to twice and three times their normal size.

By the end of the following month -- January 1942 -- the American military sent all family members to the mainland United States. She, and her mother and brother, moved to an apartment on Kanawha Boulevard in Charleston.

Kenna's mother, Ruth Mohler Phillips, was raised in St. Albans. Her brother, Dan Mohler, was president of Charleston National Bank. Kenna's father, the colonel, was from Buckhannon.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor killed 2,402 Americans and wounded 1,282 others. Eight U.S. battleships were damaged or sunk -- including the USS West Virginia, which was later raised, refitted and sent back into battle. Additionally, three cruisers, three destroyers and two other warships were hit, and 188 U.S. aircraft were destroyed.

In the wake of the attack, Kenna's father was reassigned to China. Gen. Short, who along with the Navy's Hawaii commander, Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, was blamed for dereliction of duty for the events leading up to the surprise attack, was removed from his Pearl Harbor command 10 days after the attack and retired from the Army in February 1942.

Kenna went on to attend Hollins College in Virginia, and later married a Charleston attorney, Lee Kenna. The two lived in Charleston.

For a long time, Kenna resisted revisiting Hawaii.

"I didn't want to go back for a while because all I could remember was the sad part," she said.

She did eventually go to the island for a tour of the memorial for the USS Arizona, a battleship that was sunk during the attack, claiming the lives of 1,177 men. She said she had a bad experience at the memorial. She was offended when a group of young Japanese men talked loudly through the audio tour, she said.

"That's the only time I've been back," she said.

Kenna, who is spending her winter in Florida, is a resident of the Edgewood Summit retirement home. She doesn't have any specific plans to mark the anniversary of the attack this year, she said.

"I'll just think about what happened," she said, "and the people I lost that I used to know."

Reach Lori Kersey at lori.kersey@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1240.


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