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Witness to history

Pearl Harbor has significant memories for Betty Kenealy

Created date

November 2nd, 2016
Each December, Betty Kenealy reflects on her place in American history.

Each December, Betty Kenealy reflects on her place in American history.

It’s a day I’ve never forgotten,” says Elizabeth “Betty” Kenealy, a community member at Greenspring, in Springfield, Va., and a survivor of the December 7, 1941, Japanese bombing at Pearl Harbor.

Over the course of the past 75 years, Betty has recounted the story to family but chose not to dwell on what could have happened that fateful day that left 2,403 Americans dead and 1,200 injured. 

In January 1941, Betty’s father, Joseph Walker, accepted a job as a sheet metal worker for the Navy and moved the family from Portland, Oreg., to Oahu, Hawaii. Although it was a civilian position, the family lived in military housing very close to the naval base at Pearl Harbor.

“The morning of December 7 started out like most Sunday mornings,” says Betty. “My siblings and I walked down to the beach with our father before church. We enjoyed watching the planes take off and come in from a field near John Rodgers Airport (now Honolulu International Airport). We always left in time for 8:30 a.m. mass. I remember not wanting to leave the beach that morning, but we had to go home and finish getting ready for church.”

But nine-year-old Betty and her family never made it to church that day. 

“On our way to church, my father heard loud noises and saw the Japanese flag on the side of some of the planes flying overhead,” she says. “We knew that Japan wanted control in Hawaii, so while the attack was unexpected, it was not a complete surprise.”

Sensing imminent danger, Betty’s father immediately drove the family across the island to a friend’s home 30 miles away in Kaimuki. 

“Rumors of Japanese troops on the island were everywhere,” says Betty. “We were very frightened; everyone was on edge. If we heard a plane, we got nervous, and we never knew if we’d hear an unwanted knock on the door.”

Horrific aftermath

Hours after the attack, Betty’s father was required to return to Pearl Harbor where he worked for three days recovering victims from the wreckage.

“We did not see him during that time and worried about him constantly,” she says. 

When Betty and her family returned to their home they discovered that it had been hit by machine gun fire, and the beach where they had stood early on the morning of December 7 had also been strafed by the planes.

Immediately after the attack, the island was placed under martial law, suspending the U.S. constitution and placing the military in control. All military wives were required to leave Hawaii and return to the mainland. Because Betty’s family were civilians, her mother did not have to leave.

“She made the very brave decision to stay with my father, whose initial one-year contract lasted four additional years,” says Betty. “I now know how difficult that must have been. But she was strong and determined to keep the family together.”

Schools were closed for almost two months with many becoming makeshift hospitals. When they reopened, Betty became an air raid warden. 

“We were all issued gas masks, and it was my job to lead the children out of the school and into air raid trenches,” she says. “I think I was more frightened than the kids. I was very aware of the dangers. We were constantly worried about Japanese invasion and occupation.”

The fear began to subside following the American victory at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. Considered a turning point in the Pacific War, U.S. forces sank all four of Japan’s large aircraft carriers, all of which were used in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Inescapable fate

In the years following the war, Betty and her family remained in Hawaii, her father becoming the first civilian fire chief for the 14th Naval District in Hawaii. She graduated from the University of Hawaii and was a church organist when she met Bill Kenealy, who was stationed at Pearl Harbor as an officer with the Navy’s submarine force.

“I was immediately struck,” says Bill. “I was ten when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and growing up I never imagined I’d end up here. Funny how it became the place where I would find the love of my life.”

The couple married in Hawaii in 1955 and spent the next 30 years traveling the world. They raised 5 children and now enjoy 11 grandchildren.

In 2011, the Kenealys moved from their single family home in  Springfield, Va., to an apartment home and maintenance-free lifestyle at Greenspring, the Erickson Living community  just down the road. 

“We watched the community as it was being built,” says Bill. “We had friends move in and decided that it was the best place for us to live.”

The couple are active members of Greenspring’s Catholic community and enjoy hosting their children and grandchildren for visits. 

“Our lives are so busy and full that we don’t spend time recollecting on the war years,” says Betty. “But this time of year is different. I find myself remembering, and it always makes me feel so blessed to live the life that I do.”