75 Years Later, Pearl Harbor Survivor Shares Her Story

September 21, 2016

Greenspring Resident Has Place in American History

(Springfield, Va.) – Seventy-five years ago, Elizabeth 'Betty' Kenealy, a community member at Greenspring, an Erickson Living community in Springfield, Va., survived Japan's December 7, 1941, surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that left 2,403 Americans dead and 1,200 injured.

"I don't dwell on the past but it's a day I've never forgotten," she says.

In January 1941 Betty's father, Joseph Walker, accepted a job as a sheet metal worker position for the Navy moving the family from from Portland, Oregon. Although it was a civilian position, the family lived in military housing very close to the naval base at Pearl Harbor.

"The morning of December 7th started out like most Sunday mornings," says Betty. "My siblings and I walked down to the beach with our father before church. We enjoyed watching the planes take off and come in from a field near John Rogers Airport (now Honolulu International Airport). We always left in time for 8:30 a.m. mass. I remember not wanting to leave the beach that morning but we had to go home and finish getting ready for church."

But nine-year-old Betty and her family never made it to church that day.

"On our way to church, my father heard loud noises and saw the Japanese flag on the side of some of the planes flying overhead," she says. "We knew that Japan wanted control in Hawaii, so while the attack was unexpected, it was not a complete surprise."

Sensing imminent danger, Betty's father immediately drove the family across the island to a friend's home 30 miles away in Kaimuki.

"Rumors of Japanese troops on the island were everywhere," says Betty. "We were very frightened; everyone was on edge. If we heard a plane, we got nervous and we never knew if we'd hear an unwanted knock on the door."

Hours after the attack, Betty's father was required to return to Pearl Harbor where he worked for three days helping to recover victims from the wreckage.

"We did not see him during that time and worried about him constantly," she says.

When Betty and her family returned to where they lived they discovered that their home had been hit by machine gun fire and the beach where they had stood early on the morning of December 7th had been gunned down.

Immediately after the attack the island placed under martial law, suspending the U.S. constitution and placing the military in control. All military wives were required to leave Hawaii and return to the mainland. Because Betty's family were civilians her mother was not required to leave.

"She made the very brave decision to stay with my father whose initial one-year contract lasted four additional years," says Betty. "I now know how difficult that must have been. But she was strong and determined to keep the family together."

Schools were closed for almost two months with many becoming makeshift hospitals. When they reopened, Betty became an air raid warden.

"We were all issued gas masks and it was my job to lead the children out of the school and into air raid trenches," she says. "I think I was more frightened than the kids. I was very aware of the dangers. We were constantly worried about Japanese invasion and occupation."

The fear began to subside following the American victory at the Battle of Midway in June 1942. Considered a turning point in the Pacific War, U.S. forces sunk all four of Japan's large aircraft carriers, all of which were used in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In the years following the War, Betty and her family remained in Hawaii, her father becoming the first civilian fire chief for the 14th Naval District in Hawaii. She graduated from the University of Hawaii and was a church organist when she met William 'Bill' Kenealy, who was stationed at Pearl Harbor as an officer with the Navy's submarine force.

The couple married in Hawaii in 1955 and spent the next thirty years traveling the world from Pearl Harbor to Saigon. They raised five children and now enjoy 11 grandchildren.

"Our lives are so busy and full that we don't spend time recollecting on the war years," says Betty. "But this time of year is different. You find myself remembering and it always makes me feel so blessed to live the life that I do."

About Greenspring: Greenspring, one of 19 continuing care retirement communities managed by Erickson Living, is situated on a scenic 58-acre campus in Springfield, Virginia. The community is home to nearly 2,000 residents, many of whom reside in the community's 1,404 independent living apartment homes. At Greenspring, over 200 resident-run and resident-driven programs promote an engaged, fulfilling lifestyle reflected in resident satisfaction levels that exceed the industry average. Additional information about Greenspring can be found at www.ericksonliving.com.



DC_1116_APL Pearl Harbor

Credit: Kelly Shue

Caption: Each December Betty Kenealy (pictured with her husband William) reflects on her place in American history.