George Spencer awakened in an angry mood on Dec. 7, 1941.
The 21-year-old hadn’t gotten to bed until the wee hours of the morning after attending a dance the previous night as a civilian guest at the Naval Officers Club, near Pearl Harbor.
“It was about 8 o’clock, and I heard these loud noises — bang, bang — and I got ticked off because I thought it was gunnery practice,” recalled Spencer, a Sun City West resident. “They weren’t supposed to do that on Sundays.”
As the noises intensified, Spencer leaned over in bed and turned on a radio, finding a station just in time to hear a frantic announcer shout that the island was under attack.
Spencer had been awakened by the Japanese air assault on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, an event which thrust the United States into World War II and marks its 70th anniversary on Wednesday.
Altogether, 2,390 Americans lost their lives in the Pearl Harbor attack.
Twelve ships sank or were beached, and nine were damaged. The U.S. lost 164 aircraft.
On the Japanese side, 64 soldiers died, five ships were sunk in the Pacific and 29 planes were destroyed.
“I used to live in an area known as the Punchbowl,” said Spencer, now 91. “I got out of bed and decided to go to my uncle’s house to get a better view of what was happening.”
Spencer climbed a hill just in time to see smoke and fire enveloping the area around Pearl Harbor, an approximate a 30-minute drive by car from his viewing location.
As Spencer tried to get a better view, he heard an airplane overhead and looked up to see a Japanese zero heading toward Pearl Harbor.
“The radio announcer had said we were under attack, but he hadn’t said who was attacking us,” Spencer said. “When I looked up, I could see the rising sun on the plane’s fuselage, and I knew it was Japan.
“The pilot was so close I could see him adjust his goggles as he peered down at me.”
Spencer hurriedly returned to his uncle’s home and scampered inside the house as an artillery shell struck nearby, sending shrapnel everywhere.
“Had I not jumped back into the house at that instant, I would have been shredded to pieces,” he said.
Spencer’s idyllic Hawaiian lifestyle came to an abrupt end on that December morning.
Born in Washington, D.C., Spencer had grown up in Hawaii and returned to the islands after graduating from high school in Los Angeles.
He worked as a bank teller at the Bank of Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor branch following graduation.
“I was a young guy living in Hawaii and having a lot of fun,” Spencer said. “I went to the beach, went body surfing, all those things.”
Authorities implemented martial law after the Japanese attack, effectively putting an end to Spencer’s island party and putting Hawaii residents on alert through the end of the war.
Spencer decided to volunteer as an air raid warden. His duties required him to patrol his neighborhood and assist authorities in the event of any future attacks.
Spencer figured it would be a routine job and also allow him to get out of the house at night, maybe even permitting an occasional visit to see his girlfriend.
One evening, Spencer was walking in the neighborhood when he heard the distinctive “click” of a gun.
“All of a sudden, I felt a poke in my gut,” he said.
A flashlight came on and Spencer found himself staring into the barrel of a gun held by a man of Asian heritage.
“My first instinct was that they’ve (Japanese) already landed and we don’t know it,” Spencer said.
Fortunately, the man holding the gun turned out to be a National Guard member, who directed Spencer to the other side of the street.
Spencer subsequently joined the Army Air Corps and later became a pilot, training others to fly B-17 and B-29 bombers at bases in Colorado and New Mexico.
At 91, Spencer is one of a dwindling number of Pearl Harbor survivors.
At its largest, the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association reportedly had 28,000 members. The organization now has less than 3,000 members worldwide.
Spencer said he doesn’t have any special plans for Wednesday.
He frequently visits with fellow veterans at the local American Legion post and had a chance to visit the Pearl Harbor Memorial Museum in Hawaii last August.
“They treated me like a hero,” Spencer said as he looked at old photos and recalled his return visit to the islands. “I was awfully lucky.”