December 10, 2008 Edition

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Couple remembers Pearl Harbor



World War II veteran Miles Ponder and his wife of 68 years, Catherine, look at some of their family photographs recently at their home in Walnut Ridge. The Ponders, along with their son Will, who was two months old at the time, were living in Honolulu when Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. Sunday marked the 67th anniversary of the attack.
Guard Photo ~ Lacy Mitchell
Lacy Mitchell
Guard Staff Writer

(Note: This article is reprinted with permission from the Batesville Guard.)

Catherine Ponder remembers buying barbecue kabobs for a "dime or a nickel a stick" from the Japanese who spent the afternoons barbecuing on their lawns.

She remembers all the native shops, how the weather was always warm and what a "melting pot" of cultures the area was compared to rural Arkansas.

Then again, Catherine remembers a lot about Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, 1941.

While moving to an area of Portuguese, Filipino and Asian cultures in Honolulu was a shock, it wasn't something the young wife of a Navy pilot and mother, originally from Walnut Ridge, found frightening.

"For someone my age to walk into a culture shock, it was amazing," said Catherine, now 87, while sitting in her living room at home in Lawrence County with husband, Miles.

For Miles, who had joined the military, completed flight training and married his sweetheart, Catherine, all by the end of 1940, being stationed in Hawaii was also exciting.

"It was the first time I'd been out of the country; it was rather thrilling," the 92-year-old said, chuckling.

In January 1941, Miles was transferred from Pensacola, Fla., to the naval base on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, where Catherine joined him that March.

But the idea of the United States becoming involved in World War II at the time wasn't something on his mind or the minds of those close to him, Miles said.

Carrying out routine assigned activities like "getting up in the morning and flying a plane" were, he said. "We weren't thinking in terms of war."

The C planes, which he flew, were also not prepared.

"Those planes were not built for combat," said Miles, adding they could only stay in the air for six to eight hours at a time.

Pilots also had to remember their locations with help from what the Navy called "Ouija boards."

"We didn't have global-positioning systems like they do today to make sure we landed back on the carrier," Miles said.

"We didn't have a fence post out in the middle of the Pacific (Ocean). We had to know our mark," he said.

"Thank God I never missed it (landing on the carrier) but once."

The attack

By late November of '41, Miles had boarded the USS Pensacola bound for the Philippines. His ship had just crossed the equator south of Honolulu on Dec. 7 when his crew received word of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

About six miles away from the naval base in Pearl Harbor, Catherine was at home in Honolulu.

"Everything about those first few days are in my mind like yesterday," said Catherine when asked about the attacks, which killed more than 2,000 soldiers and civilians and injured more than 1,000.

She had just finished feeding two-month-old son Will and was laying down for a nap when the sound of explosions erupted in the air and "every siren was going off," Catherine said.

Three-fourths of the base's soldiers were in Honolulu for the weekend. "I heard their running feet like a stampede of cattle," she said.

"I thought I was dreaming," said Catherine until she heard a neighbor exclaim, "Bill, get up we have to go to the station, we're being attacked!"

That's when Catherine knew she wasn't dreaming and that something was wrong.

Before then, it was announced to the public by radio every time the Navy was going to hold "mock attacks," so no one would be alarmed, she said. "Then, we didn't have TV."

But on this morning, there were no announcements.

After the news broke, Catherine said she remembers that no enemy had been identified at first. Minutes later, it was announced, "The enemy has been identified. This is no drill."

On the USS Pensacola, Miles remembered when his ship picked up the message: "Air raid on Pearl Harbor ~ this is no drill."

"It was the first time I had ever been frightened," he said, thinking back to that Sunday morning.

Frightened, he said, because "we could imagine all the horrible things" the Japanese were capable of and shocked because "it was peacetime when we left a week earlier."

Catherine, who escaped with Will to safety at a neighbor's house, said she remembers standing outside on her neighbor's balcony, watching the Japanese fighter planes fly across the sky, while hoping Miles was safe.

But it would be more than a month before she would know if he was OK.

Catherine received the official telegram that Miles sent telling her he was safe. That was Jan. 19, 1942. But by then Catherine already knew.

"I beat the telegram (home)," Miles said, laughing.

While so many lives were lost in the attack, Miles and Catherine agreed, "As bad as it was, it could have been much worse."

Because goods were shipped to the island by ocean liner, the government saw that all items "were frozen," days after the attacks, Miles said.

From gas to groceries, "We had to wait to know when things were released" by listening to the radio, Catherine said.

"Gas was rationed to three gallons a week," Miles said. "But because we used public transportation that wasn't a problem," Catherine added.

The island was also ordered under a "blackout," which meant no lights could be used for two or three days.

"You couldn't even light a match," said Miles, leaning forward in his chair.

Returning to Walnut Ridge a few months later while Miles went back to sea, Catherine said she was amazed at how lenient restrictions were compared to how they were in Hawaii.

Following the Battle of Midway, Miles returned to Pensacola, where he became a flight instructor until the end of the war when he was discharged as a lieutenant commander at age 29.

After the war

"The war ended, and I came home," Miles said. But it was bittersweet.

"I enjoyed flying, and I was glad to get out of it," he said. "It was a great relief when it was over."

While Catherine and Miles enjoyed their time spent in Hawaii, the idea of living there after the war wasn't something they ever considered.

After the war ended, the Ponders returned to Walnut Ridge, their hometown, and it's where they've remained ever since. On Nov. 8 they celebrated their 68th wedding anniversary.

Miles farmed and worked for the Lawrence County Soil Conservation Service, while Catherine was a housewife, mother to their five children, piano teacher and 4-H leader for many years.

But in 1991 they did return to Pearl Harbor on the 50th anniversary of the attacks, and Will, who was in his 50s at that time, went with them.

While Miles doesn't know if he could do it all over again, one thing he does know is how hard it was to be away from home during the war without being able to watch his son grow, he said.

"It was lonesome. But that's war. It's not pleasant any way you look at it," he said. "I wish we could get straightened out, now. I don't know, maybe this new president has got the key."

Catherine said if there's one thing she has taken away from time spent in Honolulu, it's recognizing how everyone deserves to be treated equally.

"It (living in Honolulu) kept me from ever being bigoted toward other nationalities," she said. It's also something one of her sons, who's from Southaven, Miss., also recognized.

"(He said), 'Mother, I never did hear you say one word about black people. I never heard you say any word about other people,'" said Catherine, who credits Hawaii and its diversity for giving her an open mind.

"God made us all," added Miles, agreeing with his wife.

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