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The attack on Pearl Harbor -- through the eyes of a 6-year-old

Wednesday, December 05, 2001

By Vince DiRicco

Shirley Ann Correa was born and raised in Honolulu, where she lived when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

After her marriage, she and her husband, Matt Risoldi, moved to Pittsburgh in the early '60s and lived many years in Mt. Lebanon.

In 1997, she retired from Bell Atlantic and the Risoldis moved to Florida.

Since her husband's death in 1999, she returns to Pittsburgh several times a year to renew old acquaintances.


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Sights, sounds and impressions remain as fresh today for Shirley Risoldi as they were 60 years ago when she was 6. It was Sunday morning Dec. 7, and she sensed something was wrong when she saw her mother, Eldora Correa, standing in the front yard, shielding her eyes from the sunlight as she gazed out into the distance.

Their home on Maunalani Heights, a suburb of Honolulu, afforded a sweeping view of the shoreline along Waikiki and Honolulu and farther eastward toward Pearl Harbor, some 10 miles away.

When young Shirley joined her mother, she saw what had attracted her interest. Dark clouds of smoke hung over the harbor area, from which darted black dots, very much like birds, diving and soaring. As she stared in wonder at what she was seeing, her mother's words -- "Wake up your father" -- added a discomforting edge to the child's curiosity.

A professional musician, Louis Correa had gone to bed in the early hours of the morning after his orchestra had performed at an officers' club in Pearl Harbor. When he joined the two of them outside, he initially described what he was seeing in the distance as maneuvers. "Probably some training exercises by the military," he said. But as more and more neighbors joined the family at their vantage point, he began to have doubts and suggested they go inside and listen to the radio.

"I can still hear the words of the announcer to this day," Risoldi recalled: "This is the real thing. This is the real thing. Aircraft from the Japanese air force are bombing Pearl Harbor. Citizens are ordered to remain indoors. I repeat, do not leave your homes. This is the real thing."

Risoldi recalled experiencing growing panic as she listened to her parents' reactions to the uncertainty. Would we be bombed? Would the Japanese launch an invasion? Should they flee? Where to? "Their conversation, filled with unfamiliar terms, terrified me and made me sick to my stomach."

Heeding the radio announcer's words, they stayed in their home, prepared to seek shelter under their house if the bombing spread to the civilian population.

The attack finally ended, and all was quiet the rest of that Sunday morning, except for the blaring of the radio. By late Monday morning, the Correas learned of the horror of personnel and ships lost in the attack.

"We heard that schools would be closed until further notice and that we were restricted to our homes. By then it was clear to all of us that our lives had changed dramatically," Risoldi recalled.

The schools may have closed temporarily, but her education continued on a different, more ominous level. New words were added to her vocabulary: air raids, machine guns, incendiary bombs, food rationing, bomb shelters, blackouts, inoculations, invasion, gas masks, curfews, air raid siren, air raid wardens.

"When school finally reopened, the war became an integral part of our daily curriculum. Each morning we opened with "The Star Spangled Banner," the Pledge of Allegiance ... and a gas mask drill. There were regular air-raid drills and we all headed for the bomb shelters. And everyone was required to carry a gas mask upon leaving home."

That was a cumbersome task for someone her age and size, Risoldi recalled. "I carried the mask in its carrying case slung over my shoulders and it nearly reached the floor."

Another ordeal she dreaded were inoculations that had to be repeated every few months.

Most terrifying were the air-raid alarms, the real ones that sounded in the dark of night. The family would flee to the bomb shelter that Correa had built in the empty lot next door. He lined the simple trench with an old carpet, then topped it with wooden planks and layers of dirt.

"It served us well through several air raids until a heavy rainstorm turned it into a pile of muck," Risoldi said. "From then on, we sought shelter in the storage area under our house."

Life after the Pearl Harbor attack involved other adjustments for the Correas.

"We couldn't leave our home after dark. Those with permission to drive after dark had deflectors added to their headlights so that their cars couldn't be seen from the skies," Risoldi said.

Evenings were spent in either a bedroom or a bathroom. The windows were blacked out. Air-raid wardens continually monitored the neighborhoods, and visible lighting was a finable offense. Food was rationed and the supply limited.

"My mother planted a Victory Garden in the back yard. She would also watch for incoming transport ships. When one was spotted, she would calculate when the grocer would likely receive a new food supply, then head for the grocery store. It helped that she had dealt with L. Kwai Yow, our Chinese grocer, for many years, and he usually reserved something special for us. Canned goods, for instance."

One Christmas during those trying times she received a whole box of Hershey kisses. "War or not, I was in ecstasy," she recalled.

Vince DiRicco is a free-lance writer.

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