1941: The Crucial Role of Civilian Transportation Services Following the Attack on Pearl Harbor

December 7, 1941

Without a formal declaration of war or any other explicit warning, the Empire of Japan attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in what was then the Territory of Hawaii. The Japanese Imperial Navy’s surprise strike left in its wake a staggering number of deaths and injuries – both military and civilian – at and near Pearl Harbor; altogether, 2,403 Americans were killed and another 1,178 were wounded.

The attack on Pearl Harbor also resulted in countless acts of courage and resolve, not only among the military personnel under direct assault by Japanese forces but also local civilians who placed their own lives in jeopardy to help out in areas that had been or could soon be bombarded. A critical component of those rescue efforts involved the large-scale, coordinated use of transportation to help the wounded and other at-risk individuals.

Far from being an improvised reaction to events on that Sunday morning, the rescue efforts were part of a carefully coordinated emergency plan for the region that had taken root earlier that year. Local public officials, mindful of Nazi Germany’s deadly air raids on the British civilian population, established the Major Disaster Council to deal with potential military threats to Honolulu and its vicinity.

Those heavily involved in establishing and promoting this council included Lawrence M. Judd, who had served as the territorial governor of Hawaii from 1929 to 1934. At a dinner meeting of the Leeward Lions Club at the Pearl Harbor Yacht Club in September 1941, he talked about the Major Disaster Council and its priorities.  

Judd highlighted that, while the council had been launched specifically in response to potential enemy attacks, it was also focused on other calamities that could likewise directly impact Hawaii at any given time. He explained, “The council is preparing the people of the Islands to take care of their lives and the property in case of disaster – floods, fire, epidemics, earthquakes, eruptions and a host of other possibilities which, we grant, are merely possibilities and not probabilities.”

During his speech at that dinner meeting, Judd also underscored the key parts of any large-scale, viable strategy for dealing with disasters. “Transportation, for instance, becomes a matter of utmost importance in a crisis,” he said. “In times of emergency, transportation becomes a matter of life and death to tens of thousands.”

Only three months later, the Major Disaster Council’s emphasis on transportation readiness was put to the test after the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor had begun. Ambulance services were among the first components of the council’s emergency-response plan to be deployed in the wake of that brutal assault. Council volunteers quickly removed contents from more than 100 commercial trucks and fitted the vehicles with prefabricated racks carrying litters for the wounded. These trucks were then driven to areas pummeled by Japanese planes and, along with military ambulances, were used to retrieve the wounded and take them to area hospitals.

The Major Disaster Council provided another vital transportation service that day by using trucks and Honolulu Rapid Transit Company buses to pick up children and other civilians at military bases under siege and get those individuals out of harm’s way.

(The above photo of a double rainbow over Pearl Harbor was taken in 2020 by U.S. Navy veteran Austin Rooney.)

Photo Credit: Public Domain

For more information on the Major Disaster Council and its response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, please check out https://media.defense.gov/2010/Sep/17/2001329818/-1/-1/0/AFD-100917-040.pdf and  http://ibiblio.org/pha/congress/Army%20Board%20Exhibits/Exhibit%201R.pdf

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