People often ask me what it’s like to write about the past. One of the things I find most challenging is portraying how the people of the time felt. I have not lived through a war, so I have to go on what others tell me, or what I’ve read. Recently, the Surgeon General warned of a “Pearl Harbor moment” as America faced down one of the toughest weeks with COVID-19. As an author of WWII fiction set in Hawaii, I began to think about the similarities between the Day of Infamy and the current pandemic.
Every time I write one of my WWII novels, I am faced with the task of trying to put myself in the shoes of characters who were living through experiences I can only imagine. The raw fear and uncertainty of when the next bombs might fall is something hard to conjure up in your mind. Though I grew up on the stories of my parents and grandparents–who lived through the war here in Hawaii, and I’ve read countless firsthand accounts, it still does not equate to knowing how they felt. Even into her old age, my grandmother remembered many of those marines and soldiers who camped out on her living room floor, hoping to get a sense of home and family before shipping out to Iwo Jima. She always cried when she spoke about the ones who didn’t make it back. The stamp of war left an indelible mark on her heart.
In 2018, I had just returned to Oahu from the Big Island for my father’s funeral, when an alert sounded on my phone. It was early morning and my boyfriend and I were preparing for a short hike out to a WWII bunker that overlooks the ocean near our house. I casually glanced down and saw these words on the screen: EMERGENCY ALERT: INCOMING BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. I reread the message in a strange state of shock, told my boyfriend, who seemed unfazed, and hurried him out the door. If a ballistic missile was coming, a WWII bunker seemed like a good place to be. At the bunker, we encountered several soldiers out for a run, all very serious faced and on their phones. None knew for sure what was happening. It was about forty minutes before the all clear message came, but in that time, I got a small dose of the terror that the people of Hawaii lived with for years during WWII. This is not a drill. Those were the same words broadcast throughout the islands in 1941. While writing my novel, The Lieutenant’s Nurse, a Pearl Harbor story, I was able to draw from this small reservoir of fear.
Fast forward to 2020, and I’ve been getting a similar feeling: that life as we know it has suddenly shifted and things might never be the same. Being on an island in the middle of the Pacific has its pros and cons. We have plenty of fresh air and sunshine, but are heavily reliant on imported food and goods. Any kind of breakdown in supply is potentially catastrophic. On December 8, 1941, lines stacked up outside of grocery stores, which were ordered to close at 4:30 pm and not open again until they had taken inventory. It was found that Oahu had a 37 day supply of most staple foods and 75 day supply of flour and cereals. With Japanese subs lurking in the surrounding waters, ships had all but ceased movement to and from the islands. Everyone was given a ration booklet and Martial Law ordered, with blackouts and curfews and evacuation orders. There are no blackouts here now, but Mayor Kawakami on Kauai has put in place a curfew and a curfew was announced on Oahu over Easter weekend. Anything not deemed essential has been shuttered and we are ordered to shelter in place.
Recently, at a book club event where many in attendance were youngsters during the Pearl Harbor attack, they all remembered not having butter, and how butter became a hot commodity. Now, it’s toilet paper. Which I find curious because you can’t eat toilet paper. In my novels, I have written about characters using ration tickets and growing Victory Gardens. One of the first things I did when the pandemic began ramping up, was to buy seeds and plant that garden I’ve been talking about for years now. I suspect a lot of people are doing the same. It’s a huge wake up call for anyone who relies on others for food, which is pretty much everyone.
Hawaii is also a strategic location between the United States and Asia, which makes us both useful and vulnerable. When the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, 2403 people were killed. As of this writing, only twelve people have died from COVID-19 in Hawaii, but over 45,000 have died in the United States, and the pandemic is far from over. Instead of waiting for another wave of attack, we are steeling ourselves for more possible waves of sickness if we let up our guard too soon. In Hawaii, we have the unique capability of being able to close off our borders and stop planes from bringing visitors to the state. Have we done that? No. Residents are begging the governor to take a stand, but for some reason, he hasn’t. I sense the desperation in people here, who are only several generations beyond war and a devastating Smallpox epidemic, who want to save their families and communities from a repeat tragedy. It’s scary. I feel it. And as I wrap up my fourth novel, Radar Girls, about the top secret Women’s Air Raid Defense here in Hawaii, I am beginning to understand.
In the spirit of spreading aloha, Sara shares her favorite uplifting and inspiring finds. Maybe it's a book or podcast, or maybe it's a new adventure or film that is too good not to pass along.