Great Falls Tribune: Helena couple survived Pearl Harbor in 1941

HELENA — Andy Kim, then 15, a self-proclaimed “rascal,” and some of his buddies were having their usual Sunday morning fun in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, when he noticed a tiny black speck in the sky. 

The Navy had been out on maneuvers a few days earlier, most of the Navy ships had returned to the port and U.S. military planes had been flying drills so no one was suspicious when that small dot appeared above.

Soon, the small speck got closer and passed the boys as they were standing on a railroad trestle. 

It was a Japanese fighter with what Kim calls “a goose egg” on the side.

The pilot flew by with the canopy pulled back and wiggled his wings as if waving, or perhaps going to shoot the teens, Kim recalls.

“He flew so low and so slow,” the 89-year-old Kim remembered three-quarters of a century later. “He was waiting for the other planes to catch up. He was sightseeing.”

Shortly thereafter one of his friends said the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor.

“It was unbelievable,” Kim said. “Who would think of doing that?”

The teens raced to the naval base but could not get in. He said he watched the battleship Arizona as it burned for three days and saw flatbed trucks piled high with bodies. 

He volunteered to help carry the dead and wounded.

Kim, now 89, said an anger boiled up inside his soul and he wanted to enlist.

 “I’ll be darned if I’ll let it happen here,” he said.

Andy and Dolores Kim, now Helena residents and married for 69 years, both lived at Pearl Harbor during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack by the Japanese that propelled the United States into World War II.

Dolores, who was 11 at the time and known as Dolores Perry, said she was in church. The priest stopped the service and told the people who worked at the Hickam Field Air Force base that they needed to report there.

“It was scary,” she remembers. 

He soon dismissed the others.

Dolores was heading home with a friend when she saw a Japanese plane strafing the street and heading toward them with an American pilot hot on its tail.

“I said ‘Run, Alice!’” Dolores, now 86, recalled. “And we ran and dove under a tree.” 

The next several days were terrifying, she said. There were rumors the Japanese had landed on the island. People painted the windows of their homes black to avoid detection from above. 

Andy Kim had a long-simmering hatred of the Japanese. 

His father had died when he was younger and his mother moved the family back to their native Korea, which Japan had occupied. 

He was forced to take a Japanese name and to this day can recite the prayer he would say daily to Emperor Hirohito. 

After three years, his mother was able to get the family out of Korea. They returned to Pearl Harbor.

“When I saw the Japanese bomb (Pearl Harbor) it changed the course of my whole life,” he said. “I said ‘I’m not going to let this happen in my country.’”

He joined the Navy on July 3, 1944, when he was 17. But he needed his mother’s consent.

“My mom did not want to sign,” Kim recalled. “I said ‘I have to do my job.’”

Kim’s son-in-law, Ed Reed, is surprised he waited.

“I bet he would have joined at 15 if they would have let him,” he said. 

Kim said there was no basic training or boot camp, the sailors were immediately placed aboard a ship. He was aboard the destroyer the USS Nicholas, which escorted the USS Missouri when the Japanese signed the terms of surrender on Sept. 2, 1945.

The Kims’ daughter, Debbie, said her father didn’t talk much about Pearl Harbor to her sister or two brothers when she was a child.

“But now that he is older he is talking about it,” she said.

“It kind of what shaped his whole life,” Debbie said, “and consequently it shaped us.”

In terms of observing Pearl Harbor, the Kims, who also have seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, had no plans as of late last week. 

“I have nothing planned but bugging my wife and him,” Kim said as he pointed at his son-in-law.

Kim remained in the Navy until 1969 and served in Korea and Vietnam. He also joined in sweeping for mines around Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis. He retired as a chief boatswain’s mate.

He was at Enewetak Atoll in the 1950s when the U.S. did nuclear testing and was five miles from the testing site for two tests.

“I was never so scared in my life after the blast,” he said. 

And when water seeped into one of the craters he decided to take a swim in ground zero, not knowing of the dangers of radiation poisoning.

He spent three days in the hospital and said he could not stop perspiring.

The Kims have lived in Montana for three years with their daughter and son-in-law.

They said it is one of the most patriotic places they have lived, adding restaurant patrons sometimes pick up their tab when they go out to dinner and Andy Kim is wearing his veteran’s baseball cap. 

“At least Montana gives us a little recognition,” he said. 

In October 2015, Kim was honored by Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., for being among the first Montanans who told their story to the Veterans History Project, which Congress created in 2000. It’s part of the American Folklife Center at the Library Congress, where the stories of wartime veterans are stored. Since then, nearly 100,000 veterans have shared their stories, 

Kim continues to lead by example, Daines said.

“His selfless service and bravery is true testament to the heart of all Montanans who put country first,” he said. 

A couple of years ago Kim and his son, Wayne, who is also a veteran, were on the Montana Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. He visited the war memorials and shook hands with elected officials.

Ed Reed said last summer he got a camping trailer and last summer took the family to Mount Rushmore.

Kim, who now uses a hearing aid and carries an oxygen tank to deal with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which impacts the lungs, said he is hurt when he sees others disrespect or burn the flag.

“It’s tough to watch,” he said, adding he hopes his story will let the younger generation see what others went through to protect the freedoms of the United States. 

“I fought for them then and I’ll fight for them again,” he said. “I’m not in the condition to do it, but I am willing.”

More online

For more on Andy Kim’s military experience, go to: 

Flags at half-staff

Gov. Steve Bullock has ordered all flags flown in the state to be flown at half-staff on Wednesday to observe National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.

“On this 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, we honor those American patriots who fought and died on that fateful day, and reaffirm our commitment to upholding the ideals of freedom and liberty for which they made the ultimate sacrifice to protect,” Bullock said.

The attack in Hawaii propelled the United States into World War II.