Joseph P. McDonald Remembers the Pearl Harbor Attack,
December 7, 1941
by George McDonald
Joseph McDonald at the Arizona Memorial on December 7, 1961
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 At Dawn We Slept by Gordon Prange and Donald Goldstein,
the movie Tora, Tora, Tora and the movie Pearl Harbor.
Pvt. Joseph McDonald started his shift at 5 PM December 6,1941. 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. Joseph McDonald
manned the switchboard at 6 PM. Most of the time he was alone. At 4 AM, December 7th the
plotters entered the information center. The radars were to operate between 4 AM and 7 AM.
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 7 AM the plotters exited the Information Center and headed for breakfast. Joseph McDonald's
orders were scheduled until 6 AM. Today was Sunday and Joseph stayed on duty beyond his time
until his replacement ate breakfast at 7 AM. Joseph thought that he was in the center alone.
Shortly after 7 AM 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 east."
The Lieutenant said that there was nothing to get excited about. 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 states. Pvt. Lockard asked to talk directly
with the Lieutenant. The Lieutenant took the phone and my father could hear "Well don't worry about it".
After the Lieutenant got off the phone, Joseph McDonald asked if he should recall the plotters and 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 Opana radar. 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 at them.
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
Aircraft Warning Company 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.
Tetley also believed that lives would have been saved during the Pearl Harbor Attack had the radar warning been
heeded, also the damage from the attack would have been much less. This was reported February 11, 1987 in the
Honolulu Star-Bulletin. That was my father's longest day. My father continued in the central Pacific
hopping on a number of islands Kanton, Makin, Kwajalein, Guadalcanal, New Guinea and Saipan as the military headed
for Japan. 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 heeded.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.