Eyewitness Account - Pvt. Joseph P McDonald
Fort Shafter - Radar spots Japanese planes
(as told by his son George with permission)
My father, Joseph P McDonald was in the army stationed at
the Information Center Ft. Shafter Hawaii.
His story or variations of it has been told in many books and movies including
" The Day of Infamy" by
Walter Lord, the movie Tora,Tora,Tora and the movie Pearl Harbor.
The Information Center was connected with the 5 radar sites
from various locations on Oahu. The people at the center had been on alert for a
few weeks. The rumor was that the alert was called because the Japanese Navy
could not be located. The alert was cancelled just before December 7.
Pvt. Joseph McDonald started his shift at 5pm December
6,1941. He manned the switchboard at 6pm. Most of the time he was alone.
At 4am December 7th the plotters entered the information
center. The radars were to operate between 4am and 7am. General Short thought
that was the most likely time that an attack could take place. The center had a
large table with a map of Hawaii. The plotters would move arrows on the table to
designate planes picked up by the radar sites .The radar sites had a direct line
to the plotters.
At 7am the plotters exited the Information Center and
headed for breakfast. Joseph McDonald’s orders were scheduled until 6am. Today
was Sunday and he stayed on duty beyond
his time until his replacement ate breakfast at 7am. he thought that he was in
the center alone.
Shortly after 7am the switchboard buzzed. He inserted the
plug into the phone and answered. It was the northern radar station Opana. An
excited voice that he could hardly hear asked if the plotters were still around.
McDonald said no.
The voice from Opana said, "There are a large number
of planes coming in from the north 3 points east."
Joseph replied, " I am not sure what to do there is
nobody here." At that point the connection was broken. (Pvt. George Elliott
made this call) McDonald looked at the clock to time the message and saw a
Lieutenant from the Air Corps sitting at the plotting table.
He walked in and said, " I just received a call from
6QN Opana reporting a large number of planes coming in from the north 3 points
The Lieutenant said that there was nothing to get excited
McDonald returned to the switchboard and called the man
back on the Opana radar unit. McDonald relayed the Lieutenant's lack of concern.
The voice at Opana was coming in stronger now. He recognized the voice as his
friend Joseph Lockard. Pvt. Lockard was excited and stated that a large number
of planes were heading fast towards Oahu." Hey Mac there is a heck of a big
flight of planes coming in and the whole scope is covered."
McDonald told Joseph Lockard to hold on. McDonald, infected
by his friend’s excitement, again returned to the plotting table. McDonald
said, "Sir, this is the first call that I have ever received like this.
This sounds serious! Do you think that we ought to do something about it? Shall
I call back the plotters?"
The Lieutenant said that it was probably a flight from the
Pvt. Lockard asked to talk directly with the Lieutenant.
The Lieutenant took the phone and my father could hear "Well don't worry
After the Lieutenant got off the phone, Joseph McDonald
asked if he should recall the plotters or call Wheeler Field. The Lieutenant
replied, "Don't worry about it".
McDonald was sure that it was serious. He knew that the
Lieutenant was inexperienced in the information center's operations as it was
only his second day there. McDonald was pretty sure that it was serious. A
number of times he grabbed the line for Wheeler Field. McDonald then thought
that he could be court marshaled for going around the Lieutenant. Who would
listen to a private anyway?
At about 7:45 McDonald's replacement arrived. My father was
exhausted after working over 14 hours yet the communication from Opana kept
gnawing on his mind. He thought that he would call Wheeler from the orderly
tent. He passed by the orderly tent and saw the Sergeant using the phone. He
returned to his tent to tell his tent mate Pvt. Richard Schimmel " Shim the
Japs are coming". McDonald sat on his bunk and recounted the call from the
A few moments later, they could hear the drone of planes.
Their tent was on a hill overlooking Pearl Harbor. Finally, they could see the
planes coming over. There were a lot of them and they seemed to play follow the
leader. They were flying in single file. Finally, the lead plane dived and the
others followed. They could hear the loud roar of explosions and black smoke.
A radio was playing in a nearby tent. The music stopped and
a frantic voice said," all cars keep clear of Pearl Harbor! Pearl Harbor is
under attack by the Japanese. McDonald and Schimmel ran to get a better view on
top of the mess hall. They could see planes diving on Pearl Harbor and Hickam
Field. The explosions kept getting worse. Everybody was stunned. Some guys were
running out of their tents with their pants half down and some no pants on at
all. Everybody seemed to be running in different directions. Confusion ruled as
the torpedo planes flew overhead. The planes were so low that some threw stones
All of the ammunition was locked up. The rocks became their
only weapon. Anti aircraft guns from the 64th C.A. across the street tried to
knock down the oncoming planes. They came so close that it knocked Schimmel and
McDonald down to floor of the mess hall roof. They ran to their tent and got
their guns and gas masks and headed to the information center. They worked
through the day answering the calls from the various military bases.
Later in an investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack,
Associate Supreme Court Justice Owen Roberts reportedly said to my father that
the message that my father received was far greater than than the "Message
to Garcia". This reference was to a message from the President to the
Commanding General in Cuba during the Spanish American War. It was critical to
win that war.
Later, as written by Col. USAF (Ret) W.H. Tetley Commanding
Officer of the 580th Signal Corps : “ Joseph McDonald performed in
an outstanding manner on 7 December 1941 when he manned the AWS switchboard in
order to keep the Air Corps duty-officer appraised of the position of the
approaching Japanese bomber force. Had that duty-officer been able to get his
Fighter Wing airborne, it could have deprived the Japanese of the important
element of surprise which was so much in their favor”.
That was my father's longest day. My father continued in
the central Pacific hopping on a number of islands as the military headed for
He did not talk a lot about Pearl Harbor publicly. He
always questioned how many lives might have been saved if the radar warning was