Susanna Kitts Sherwood was one of the first Americans to learn about the infamy.
Her brother David broke the news to her during the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, as Japanese forces bombed and torpedoed Pearl Harbor — the Hawaiian home base for the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet.
The Kitts family was living in Honolulu. Susanna’s father, Willard A. Kitts III, was executive officer of the USS Salt Lake City and the fleet’s gunnery officer.
Sherwood, 88, a longtime Schenectady resident, remembers David pounding on her bedroom door. He told her enemy soldiers were nearby.
“He was an awful tease,” said the petite Sherwood, sitting in the spacious living room of her Stockade apartment. “I just assumed he was teasing. Finally, by the tone of his voice, I realized he wasn’t.”
Today is the 72nd anniversary of the attack, which sunk or damaged 19 ships — including the lost USS Arizona. More than 2,400 military and naval personnel were killed in the disaster; 49 civilians were killed and 83 were injured.
Pearl Harbor became the chief reason for the United States’ entry into World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt would describe the attack as a “date which will live in infamy.”
Sherwood expected to continue the carefree life of a 14-year-old when her family moved from Washington to Honolulu in January 1940. Her family had been living in Long Beach, Calif., when the West Coast contingent of the Pacific Fleet was assigned to Pearl Harbor. In Honolulu, Susanna and David enrolled in Roosevelt High School; older brother Willard F. Kitts was at college in Amherst, Mass.
While Susanna made friends among Japanese, Chinese and Portuguese teens — and landed a leading role in the Roosevelt High production of “Ever Since Eve” — people were already nervous about a possible Japanese incursion.
“In the two previous years, we had a blackout practice,” Sherwood said. “We had to spend one whole night completely in the dark. If you didn’t have a blackout room, you sat in the dark. And we did that twice. So it wasn’t as though it came completely out of the blue. There was constant talk about it.”
The Kitts family was living in a residential hotel, a complex that included a main building and small cottages. Once Sherwood had been roused by David, she dressed and rushed downstairs. She learned that her father had already traveled to Pearl Harbor.
“My mother said he had been in the shower and heard thumpings,” Sherwood said. “He was Admiral Kimmel’s gunnery officer for the whole fleet, and he thought, ‘There’s no practice today, I haven’t scheduled a practice.’ So he threw his clothes on and got a friend, another officer who was living at the hotel, and that man’s wife drove them to Pearl Harbor, which was a two-lane highway from Honolulu to Pearl Harbor. It was anywhere from 20 minutes to a half an hour, and they were strafed by the Japanese planes. But she got through and then got back to the hotel. Gutsy lady.”
The Kitts teenagers did what they could to explore the situation, although they were miles away from the action. They didn’t see any smoke and didn’t hear any explosions — not from the Japanese attack, at least.
“My brother and I ran into the street,” Sherwood said. “It was exciting. We were 16 and 18, and what’s going on! We were standing out in the street because we heard airplanes. There was no traffic, nothing. All the radio was saying was ‘the island of Oahu is under attack; the Rising Sun has been sighted on the wings of the planes.’ That’s all we knew, and then they’d play music and they’d announce it again.”
One car did speed by. Sherwood believes an Army officer was driving, because of his attitude: He told the kids to get the hell out of the street and take cover.
“With that, there was this huge explosion, black smoke, and we ran through the garden to some other cottages,” Sherwood said. “My brother was ahead of me, and he came back very quickly and said, ‘Susie, don’t go there, you don’t want to see that.’ A woman had just been killed standing on the porch of her cottage.”
Sherwood didn’t find out what had really happened to the woman — and other locals — until years later.
“They were artillery shells coming back down on the city — the city was firing artillery shells up, and they were coming down,” Sherwood said. “Quite a few people were killed … there were Army posts all around the island.”
With news of the attack spreading, people in Honolulu listened to rumors and wondered what might happen next.
“The rumors were flying,” Sherwood said. “We thought they were going to invade; that was going to be the next step. My brother was sent down to one of the beaches to dig trenches. My father, apparently before he left, said to my mother, ‘If you have to evacuate the city, go to the Chinese cemetery in the mountains and I’ll look for you there.’ ”
That night was another difficult time. Fredrika Kitts, Susanna’s mother, had invited the wife of a young Naval officer who was all alone to stay in the Kitts apartment. Fredrika’s mother, Gertrude Garnet, was also in the group. Susanna remembers sitting up in bed and shaking uncontrollably when she heard a fleet of airplanes flying overhead.
“My mother said, ‘They’re ours,’ ” Sherwood said. “They had flown over from California.”
The attack and aftermath were the subject of conversation for days.
“There was one rumor, I don’t know if it was true or not, there was some young man out flying his little plane on Sunday morning and he got shot down and landed in a cane field,” Sherwood said. “Apparently, he had on some kind of an overall or jumpsuit that had a circular name on the back. And this farmer came after him with a pitchfork because he thought he was one of the invaders.”
That wasn’t the worst of the stories.
“The worst one, we constantly heard, was parachuting,” Sherwood said. “They were going to parachute. There was a woman who sat on the porch one night with us and there was a palm tree swaying, and she said, ‘I’m sure that’s a parachutist caught up in the tree.’ ”
The Kitts family saw father Willard near Christmas, at the officers’ club at Pearl Harbor. By mid-February, civilians were being evacuated back to the United States. Sherwood and her family were given quarters on a Navy transport ship and received destroyer escorts for much of the voyage on the Pacific. Sherwood saw the Pearl Harbor devastation when the convoy moved out.
“It was horrible to see all those ships,” Sherwood said. “You couldn’t believe that magnificent fleet and all those ships were just gone.”
The trip home was dangerous. Once, the engines came to a full stop and all passengers were told to be quiet. There was concern about an enemy presence in nearby waters.
Both David and Willard F. Kitts joined their father in the military. Sherwood and her mother ended up in San Francisco, and the young woman said she would occasionally see her Japanese friends from high school, who were also living in the city.
“They’d say, ‘Hi Susie, what do you hear from home?’ Meaning Honolulu,” Sherwood said. “That’s the best thing that ever happened to me, going to that school, because of the diversity.”
Sherwood worked as a Red Cross aide during the war. She married James Sherwood, a longtime Marine, in 1947.
Sherwood first lived in Schenectady in 1953, with her parents, while James was serving during the Korean War. The Sherwoods would later spend time in Virginia, New Mexico and California, among other places, before settling down in Schenectady in 1966. Susanna co-owned a dress business, Susan B. Originals, and was a longtime volunteer at Ellis Hospital.
The Sherwoods observed their 50th wedding anniversary in 1997 by traveling to Hawaii and Oahu.
“The minute the plane came down, and I’m going to do it now, I just burst into weeping,” Sherwood said. “I think it was family; we were never a united family after that. After that, we grew up and scattered. We were close, we were always close, but it was a time that just disappeared.”