It seemed a normal Sunday morning for Oahu’s military contingents. Early risers were out for morning chow, Sunday services, or the beaches and golf courses. Some would sleep in, burdened by the lingering affects of a late night. No one awoke anticipating war on 07 Dec 41. But the plan of the day changed when the first Japanese warplanes swarmed over Hickam Field, Schofield Barracks, and Battleship Row.

Within hours, well-trained Imperial Japanese Navy pilots had decimated the Pacific Fleet’s battleships, destroyed hundreds of aircraft and buildings, and killed thousands of men. The attack drove a nation still reeling from a decade of economic depression to the edge of panic. Rumors swirled and West Coast residents feared a Japanese armada would appear on the Pacific horizon at any moment. In terms of national horror, only the War Between the States exceeds Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

You’re fortunate if you’ve been privy to a firsthand account of the raid. I enjoyed that opportunity with Bill Rudder — a Gastonia, NC newspaper man and inventor after the war — who was an electrician with the 259th Q.M. Detachment assigned to the 7th Bomber Command at Hickam Field on 07 Dec 41. His contribution won’t place him alongside Alvin York or Audie Murphy in American military lore. But Bill was there, he fought, and he lived to tell his story. 

After realizing Pearl Harbor was under a genuine attack Rudder and two buddies, John Strickland and Sanford Garrett, rushed to the armory. They were given Springfield bolt-action rifles, an infantry staple from the First World War. Once armed and having overcome problems loading the Springfield, Rudder aimed ahead of a Japanese aircraft and sent a .30 caliber slug hurtling into the Hawaiian sky. He hit nothing, but jokingly claimed to have fired the first American rifle shot of World War II. Undeterred by his miss, Rudder joined fire on another Japanese plane, which trailed smoke and crashed at Fort Kam. Rudder later examined the wreckage, finding American-made Philco tubes in the Japanese plane’s radio. 

In the  photo Mr. Rudder’s vehicle is seen parked at the base of a flag pole while a bombed building burns in the background. According to Mr. Rudder, the tattered American Flag was the result of repeated machine gun fire from Japanese fighters. What a story. 

The late Bill Rudder won’t commemorate the 70th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor. In fact, few men remain who witnessed America’s entrance into the Second World War. The youngest Pearl Harbor survivors are in their late eighties and their numbers are dwindling. As they die, so too will die their innumerable stories of anonymous bravery, stories like Bill Rudder’s. 

The last American veteran of World War I, Frank Buckles, passed away last February. In May, the world’s last known WW I veteran, Claude Choules, died in Australia. When the last “Bill Rudder” dies America’s firsthand connection to WW II will be forever lost, just as our connection to the “Great War” is lost. Pearl Harbor, 07 Dec 41, will remain a date that lives in infamy. But it will live as factual history, lacking the personal reference to which we’ve been accustomed. It will be a great loss.