Pearl Harbor was 70 years ago today, but 95-year-old Beatrice Thacher of Edina remembers it as if it were yesterday. Her husband, Bob, a Navy officer, was assigned to the battleship California, which was at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He was not on board the morning of the attack because he was not assigned to duty that morning. He was at home with his wife and daughter, which likely saved his life.
Richard Sennott, Star Tribune
'Bea and I started the war'
- Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA
- Star Tribune
- December 6, 2011 - 10:02 PM
For Beatrice and Bob Thacher, it was the start of what seemed like another perfect Hawaiian day.
The sun was shining outside the open window and the couple was just stirring in bed when explosions echoed from the harbor below.
"Oh my God, what's going on?" Bob said as he sprang from the bed to turn on the radio.
Seventy years later, the radio announcement on Dec. 7, 1941, still echoes in Bea Thacher's memory:
"Ladies and gentleman, the island of Oahu is under attack. It is not known who the enemy is, but it is believed to be the Japanese."
Thacher, 95, now lives in Edina. Tiny but vibrant, she vividly recalls that day not as someone who saw battleships burning, but as a worried wife who was raising a 2-year-old and was pregnant with her second child.
She grew up in New Jersey and met her future husband through a friend. Bob Thacher was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. The couple went to dances, "but our romance was mostly through the mail," she said. Bea went off to teacher's college while Bob began his Navy service in 1936. In 1938, they were married.
As Bob sailed the oceans, Bea lived a peripatetic Navy wife life, packing up the car to move cross-country each time her husband's home port changed. Apartments were hard to find in Navy towns, and the couple often shared housing.
Bob was a gunnery officer in charge of the anti-aircraft battery on the battleship California.
"I loved that battleship; it was always breaking down," Bea Thacher said with a smile. That meant the ship often had to come back to port for repairs, and she got to spend time with her husband.
All the while, she said, she had "a bad feeling" about Japan. When she was still in college, the United States cut off oil shipments to Japan after Japan invaded China, and the Japanese reaction was strong.
"I had a sense that something would happen," she said.
The Pacific Fleet was ordered to Hawaii because of fears of war with Japan. Most Navy wives stayed on the mainland, but as Thacher contemplated returning to New Jersey, she changed her mind and vowed to join her husband on the island.
"It didn't make any sense," she said. "We didn't have any money." But she wanted to do it anyway, and "it wasn't because of the lure of the island."
So Bea Thacher sailed to Hawaii on a tourist ship, and said she spent the entire trip chasing her 2-year-old, Carol, around the ship deck. The two arrived in a lush, undeveloped Hawaii that had just three hotels on Waikiki Beach.
"It was gorgeous," she said.
The couple found lodging in a run-down cul-de-sac crowded with Navy families. The landlord was a woman who mothered the young Navy wives, who saw their husbands only when they were off-duty.
Duty roster saved Bob
Fate and the duty roster put Bob Thacher at home with his wife on the night of Dec. 6. Bea said she and Bob had talked about the possibility of a Japanese attack. He jokingly assured her that with all the American battleships and minesweepers and other armaments at Pearl Harbor, "They can't touch us."
That morning, as they stared at each other and listened to the radio, she told him, "Well, they're here before breakfast."
He threw on his uniform and left. Radio announcements warned civilians to stay indoors and to boil water in case it had been poisoned. Lights were prohibited. Even the glow of a lit cigarette at night was said to be dangerous.
Bea wandered up the cul-de-sac and found other wives listening to the radio, playing bridge and drinking coffee. As she mechanically rigged a blanket to cover a window, she began to tremble.
"I heard a plane and it kicked in physically," she said. "I was shaking so bad I bit on the blanket to stop my teeth from chattering."
A military installation at Waikiki was evacuated and volunteers were asked to house evacuees. A silent woman and her toddler came to stay with Bea and Carol.
"She was obviously upset," Bea said. "She slept in Carol's bed. When I got up the next morning, they were gone."
The Navy wives heard reports of four Naval officers crammed in an open car that had weaved down the road to Pearl Harbor and been strafed by a stray Japanese plane. The driver had swerved into a ditch to avoid the bullets.
Bea had no idea what had happened to her husband. But one of her neighbors told her that she had heard that Bob was OK. She later found out that he had been riding in that strafed car.
The officer who took his place on the California on Dec. 7 was killed when Japanese bombers hit both ends of the ship. As the ship slowly sank, Bob Thacher and his shipmates moved guns into sugar cane fields and spent the next couple of days watching for Japanese planes.
"Bob never described it," she said. "He never talked about it. I still think about it -- the burning oil, the bodies, the submarines that were still out there."
A harrowing journey at sea
Bea didn't see Pearl Harbor until six weeks after the bombing, as the Navy evacuated families to the mainland. She boarded a ship not knowing where it was going.
The ship rolled in the waves because it didn't have enough ballast, and anxiety swept over those on board when the little fleet it was part of had to pause in the Pacific to deal with engine problems in one boat. Japanese submarines were thought to be in the area. Bea was wearing an old tweed coat that a friend of Bob's had handed her before she left.
She remembers being in a fog at the time, "crushed" by the thought that she might not see her husband again yet resiliently rolling with the punches.
"That's youth," she said.
Bea spent the rest of the war years in New Jersey, dashing to New York to see Bob for an hour when his ship docked and he left for other assignments.
"I just missed him so much," she said. "I was dying to see him. It would be in on a Friday, out on a Monday."
Ignorance was a shield. Phone calls and letters from her husband were censored, providing a weird kind of protection.
"I don't remember being scared," she said. "That's why I feel so much for military families these days. When these women can see everything that their husbands are doing, that's horrible."
Settling in Minnesota
The Thachers moved all over the country as Bob's career advanced. They raised five children. Bob retired from the Navy in 1961 and asked Bea where she'd like to live. She told him, "anywhere near the sea or with mountains."
So they came to Minnesota, where Bob got a job with Honeywell, working on the Apollo spacecraft project. When that job ended, he taught math at the newly opened Normandale Junior College, fulfilling a dream to be a teacher.
"He loved it," Bea said.
She taught and worked as a school librarian. Their kids grew into people who made their parents proud, she said. Bob died in 1993.
He never talked about World War II.
"He didn't have the gift of gab," she said. But "he would joke, 'Bea and I started the war. We were at Pearl Harbor.'"
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 Twitter: @smetan
© 2014 Star Tribune