‘I can still see the smoke, fire and flames of unimaginable horror of Pearl Harbor’


A deathly haze of blue, purple, red and black filled the sky as a scene from hell erupted in front of young Richard Hugen’s eyes.

Aged just five, he had risen at 8am one Sunday to the roar of planes overhead. They were so low he waved to one of the Japanese pilots, who waved back.

Minutes later, the bombs were unleashed on a day that would be etched in the annals of wartime history. This was Pearl Harbor. December 7, 1941.

Today, three days ahead of the 80th anniversary, Richard recalls the unimaginable horror he saw close to the Hawaiian capital of Honolulu.

Some 2,403 Americans, including 68 civilians, died. Another 1,173 were injured.

Richard’s memories are strikingly vivid. He says: “I can still see it now. The smoke, the fire, the flames.

“I am looking up at the sky and it’s purple, it’s blue, it’s black, it’s red.

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“I couldn’t tell you one thing that happened to me on December 6. But I can still remember everything that happened on December 7. Growing up in a naval family, I feel that despite my young age I had a greater awareness and acuity for what was going on. As soon as I saw that Japanese dive-bomber, I knew something was very wrong.”

The attack, intended by the Empire of Japan to prevent the US Pacific Naval Fleet from interfering with its military actions in South East Asia, drove the previously neutral Americans to enter the Second World War. And that would change the course of history.

The assault was later judged in the Tokyo Trials to be a war crime, because it happened without declaration of war or explicit warning.

Richard, now 85, recalls waking his mother Mary to tell her planes were flying directly over their house next to the Pearl Harbor naval station.

He says Mary, who was 31 at the time, flew into a “complete panic”. His father, also called Richard, was the chief naval officer on heavy cruiser USS Salt Lake City, which was due into the besieged harbour at any moment.

But bad weather delayed its arrival – ultimately saving the lives of Richard Snr and his crewmates.

In the first wave of bombings, 183 aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy sought to destroy as much of the US Pacific Fleet as possible. But worse was to come.

Ninety minutes later, a second devastating wave of 170 Japanese aircraft descended, leaving eight US warships sunk or damaged, three cruisers and three destroyers damaged, and 188 aircraft destroyed.

The horror never left Richard’s mother, who died in 1968 from cirrhosis of the liver after suffering from long-term alcoholism.

Richard says: “My mother was completely overcome with emotion that day. She put me and my sister Rita, who was two, into our car and drove us to Pearl City, where my father was expected to arrive.

“It was tragic and comical in some ways, and it was to no avail. He didn’t get back until late that night.

“When she was driving I knew she wasn’t right. The events were just too big for her. The marine guard at the gate at Pearl City told her to get ‘the f*** out of there’. I had never heard that word before, but I knew how serious the situation was.

“She couldn’t move, she was just paralysed by shock. The guard actually shot in front of her car to get her to respond. Eventually she did move the car, but ended up reversing into a wall, making a dent. At that moment, 70 yards in front of us, a Japanese aircraft crash-landed belly-up. My mother was in tears, speeding away from this burning wreck back towards home.”

The shattering impact of the crash left Ruth deaf in one ear. She turned to alcohol to cope with the nightmares of that day.

Richard, who went on to serve in the US Army Air Service, now lives in Denver, Colorado. He says his father, who spent 35 years in the navy and died in 1978 at the age of 78, never talked about that day, much like many of his generation.

Clarence Miller, who was a 20-year-old sailor aboard the USS Ramsay DM-16, was a rare member of that generation who felt able to tell his story openly throughout his life.

He managed to escape from the harbour with his crew and made it out to open sea.

Clarence would tell his sons Rick and Bob how he saw “great clouds of oily black smoke rising above the battleships that had been hit by divebombers and torpedo planes”.

In a piece he wrote about the attack, Clarence said: “I heard the roar of airplane noises… we were completely stunned. You could see the faces of the Japanese pilots and rear gunners as they flew over. Looking back, the harbour was nothing but black oil smoke. It was a desolate site. We all thought here was an invincible fleet and in an hour’s time it was destroyed.

“The planes were smashed, buildings burning, bombs exploding.”

Rick, 58, who lives near Chicago, tells the Sunday Mirror: “A lot of the veterans don’t talk about what happened to them, so as sons we feel a responsibility to keep these stories alive as the living history is going to be lost in just a few years.

“I do think our dad felt some sense of survivor’s guilt, knowing those other men didn’t make it out alive that day.”

Rick and Bob are members of the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors group, which holds anniversary ceremonies every year.

US Air Force veteran Bob, 61, says: “One of the main reasons Dad felt compelled to tell his story was because he wanted to say, ‘This can’t happen again’.

“Then a year after he died, 9/11 happened. I am glad he didn’t see that day, it would have crushed him after what he went through.”

Clarence died in 2000, aged 78. His sons scattered his ashes at Pearl Harbor – as he “wanted to be near the guys who didn’t make it out”.

Rick, who now has a Pearl Harbor museum in his home, says: “These men were just young 20 and 21-yearold kids who became heroes.

“Our father was a part of history. He didn’t just live through history but was part of a historic event that shaped the history of this country and the world.”

Professor David Kennedy, an American historian at Stanford University, says: “If Pearl Harbor hadn’t happened, the course of modern history would look very different.

“The world we live in today would be a wholly different world.”

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