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MURIEL (VANDERWALKER) HELSEL AND PEARL HARBOR

(as told to Bill Utermohlen)

It was fourscore and five years from the Declaration of Independence to Fort Sumter; it was 80 years from Fort Sumter to Pearl Harbor; as it has now been 70 years since Pearl Harbor, this seems a good time to share the story of a Cox family member who was there, Muriel (Vanderwalker) Helsel.[1]

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I was born in 1919 in Bisbee, Arizona.  I had two older sisters, one 14 years older and one 2 years older.  My immediately older sister was very ill as a young child, and my mother was very upset and wanted to get out of Arizona and the heat and that's when they decided to move to California.  My second birthday was celebrated on the desert, going from Bisbee, Arizona to Los Angeles.  We temporarily stayed with an aunt in San Bernardino.  But I grew at 3674 Sixth Avenue in Los Angeles till I was married.  I was married in 1940, on April 2nd, and my 21st birthday was April 24th. 

My husband [Rolland Helsel] was a student at Seattle Pacific College in Seattle, Washington and we met at the Methodist Church where I grew up.  He was down visiting.  His father had taken a position at USC.  He had connections in Seattle and we returned to Seattle immediately after our marriage.  He was going to be a history teacher and coach, probably basketball.  He and his brother had always refereed the USC practice games. 

My husband worked for Captain Anderson, who operated the little boats that went across to Mercer Island.  And then they also had friends that had a sightseeing boat that started out at Leshot park in Seattle and went through the locks around to the Seattle harbor.  It was very popular in the summertime.  And he acted as purser on that through his college days.  We went back up there because he had a position and he was not quite finished with his college graduate work.  Anyway, we spent the summer there and then returned to Los Angeles where he completed his graduate studies.  In the meantime, he asked me if I minded if he joined the Naval Reserve. I did not. As he was finishing his graduate work at USC, he was called to active duty.  He asked for a deferment until he graduated.  That was granted him. 

We went back up to Seattle and the day we arrived, they came out madly saying the government wants you to call immediately.  Well, he was called to active duty and told to report to Harvard Business School for indoctrination into the Navy.  I went with him.  We met his folks in Kansas and transferred all the household things we had taken with us and went on.  When we arrived, we did not like any of the apartments.  They were very dirty and very expensive, so we decided to see if the school had anything in mind.  He was very surprised when he came out and said he had to live at the school.  They found me a room at what they called the Harvard Houses.  They were boarding houses that the upperclassmen could rent instead of going into dorms and they were vacant for the summer months, so I had a room there.  I had temporary jobs with an architect and also with a group called American Defense - Harvard Group, which was trying to get people aware of the problems in Europe at that time.  [This was the summer of 1941.]

So when he finished the course at Harvard, he was ordered to the U.S.S. Pennsylvania, [a battleship], and we returned to California, found an apartment, and put him aboard the Pennsylvania.  And eventually he wound up in Hawaii and he wrote me that he wanted me to come--all the wives were there and I should get over there as soon as I could.  We had just bought a new car, so the car and I departed on the 19th of November 1941.  I had arrived there -- I don't know how long it took, five or six days -- before Thanksgiving.  [Thanksgiving was on November 27].  I discovered, after I sailed, he had been transferred from the Pennsylvania to Ford Island at Pearl Harbor.  We found a house to rent in the Waikiki area and got settled in there.  It was a two-bedroom place and we had most of our second bedroom with all our gear and unpacked things, found enough just to get ourselves settled in.  I got a job with what they called the Pacific Naval Air Base contractor.  In those days all repairs or building on government property was done by contractors.  They didn't have Seabees, that came along with the war.

At any rate, Saturday night, December 6, we went to the Battle of the Bands, which was at Bloch Arena.  A couple of the boys off the Pennsylvania came with us.  We tried to get them to stay in the house with us, rather than going back, but they decided they needed to be back for quarters in the morning and it would be too late.  [Waikiki is about 10 miles east of Pearl Harbor.]  In the meantime, my husband had to be Supply Duty Officer on Sunday and he had to be back aboard Ford Island by 8 o'clock in the morning.  We had a neighbor a couple blocks away who was Operations Officer and he was coming off duty.  Rather than have his wife take all the kids to come get him, he asked Rolland to pick up his car at home and drive it to Pearl Harbor. So, if I had taken him, I would have been right in the midst of it.  [The first wave of Japanese planes hit the airfields on Ford Island at 7:51 a.m.  The second wave began attacking the fleet at about 8:30 a.m.]

 

Ford Island and the Naval Air Station during the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Battleship row is on the far side of the Island.

I was coping with a newness to the island, a change of seasons and the change of hours, and so after Rolland left, I went back to bed and went to sleep.  And I could hear all these bombs, but I was used to having that happen around Los Angeles, where I grew up, where they shoot off the guns down there around Long Beach.  So, I didn't think anything of it.  Anyway, the little house that we had was owned by a couple with a big garage.  They lived over the garage and then had these two little houses that they rented out.  It was an Army officer we had met and he came to get Rolland and, of course, Rolland was already gone, so he told me to get dressed and he would take me with his wife down to Fort DeRussy, which was right at Honolulu Harbor. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I turned the radio on and they were saying, "Keep off the streets, nobody go on the streets," and I thought, well, I'll have to tell Rolland I can't come, and I got to the phone and I was just about to dial it and I thought, what am I doing, I'm sure he knows what is going on.  That was my first reaction, because I was to go out and meet him.  There wasn't anything going on and the idea was I would go out and go swimming and have dinner with him later.

Well, I had just bought a new pant outfit, which had just come in style, and I went out and the army officer took one look at me and said, "Go find something darker."  We went out in the yard and we could see the planes coming over and then pealing off one by one divebombing.  And, of course, we could see the fires and smoke, but we didn't know what was going on. The radio said that Pearl Harbor is under attack, but they didn't tell you what had been hit or if anything had been hit at that time

I spent the night in a revetment, along with a lot of Army officers and Japanese housekeepers, and the mosquitos.  I've never been hurt by a mosquito since.  I was so badly bitten I could hardly open my eyes.  They let us stand up on the top.  They were waiting to take us to Fort Schofield, but they were waiting for us to get gas masks.  Well, the Army wife whose husband came and got me and took me down there, we decided we would rather die in our homes, so we left.  And as I got back, Rolland was coming home to get clothes, so I knew he was all right.  I decided I'd never worry about things again.  I had such a headache from being concerned about what was going on and how he was doing.  He had been right in the midst of it at Ford Island.

The Pennsylvania was in drydock and was not badly damaged.  There were several people on board it that were killed, but no one we knew.  The sad part were the ships that were overturned.  I worked in a temporary building and the crews off the Oklahoma and the Arizona were trying to get rosters of the people who had survived and, of course, there were so many who were burned in the harbor.  We always took our laundry down right to the little boat area where my husband had to take the boat over to Ford Island daily.  And I had all my good wedding linens and I'm sure they were used by some of the survivors down there.  I was happy to donate them too, but I never got my laundry back.

The heart-rending ones were the ones that had managed to get out of the ship, like the Oklahoma, they had a crew there that were sitting in our offices trying to find out which boys had been found and were all right and where they were.  They were invited back aboard another ship at meals and they couldn't stand it, they couldn't stay, they came back right away, they had too many feelings of horror, as they were caught in this area.  One of them had tried to pull a boy out.  He was too big to get through the porthole.  As it overturned, you know, there were portholes that they tried to get out of.

After the attack, the officers were required to be on the station.  They got home one night in six or one day in six.  Six hours, that was it.  So, I was by myself most nights.  They kept having these false alarms of Japanese landings on Hawaii and the rumors kept circulating that they had landed.  So, I would stay in the kitchen where we had covered the windows for the blackout and then go to the bathroom to get changed into my night clothes and then I'd get into bed.  Well, I was by myself and I'd hear these footsteps and they'd go "plop, plop, plop" and it'd all tie together.  So, finally I'd get to sleep and then my husband would come home and I'd go out like a light, you know, I was just so glad he was there.  And then he woke me, "what is that?"  Well, it was quite a few months before we realized they were what they call bufos, they have these big bull forest frogs. 

A legal officer we knew had a wife who was a nurse and she had been traumatized by all the boys that she had helped heal and take care of on December 7th.  So, I guess it was a couple months afterwards that I went and we gave up our apartment and I lived with her, because she didn't want to be by herself.  We had blackouts and curfews until after the Midway Battle (in early June), and then things eased a little bit, although we were never without curfews.  I don't think they put that off until almost the end of the war. 

I was put into a pool of stenos.  Because I had been in Boston that short while, I was sort of used to that Boston accent.  And so I kept getting called by this one man, who was so annoyed because the girls couldn't understand what he was dictating.  Eventually, he was selected to go with the new admiral that was appointed, Carl Cotter, to set up Pacific Division, Bureau of Yards and Docks.  That office handled all the Seabee battalions that were getting organized to work on the different little islands.  I would have been shipped home.  In fact, they kept telling me I would be on the next ship that went out.  The legal officer I mentioned said just declare it your legal domicile and then there won't be a problem.  Well, we didn't have children and, at that point, we were not planning for it, so that's what we did and I was able to stay.  I eventually wound up as Chief Clerk for this Pacific Division.  We discovered later that my husband, along with all the ensigns that were in that Harvard group, were scheduled to go on to Wake and Guam and all of those islands.  He, luckily, was kept at Ford.  Actually, it ended up as a good place to spend the War after the Midway Battle.

[1] Muriel is part of the Sarah Catherine (Cox) Kirby line.  For an account of the Kirby family and letters relating to the Vanderwalker family's 1882 migration into Arizona from California, see Appendix E of the Cox Book.

   

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Bill Utermohlen, 1916 Windsor Road, Alexandria, VA 22307;