Pearl Harbor survivor, 90, still on mission to tell story
When Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, Bob Kerr, now 90, had the grim task of finding out which men in his squadron died.
December 7th, 2011
07:03 AM ET

Pearl Harbor survivor, 90, still on mission to tell story

Seventy years have not dulled the memories of Bob Kerr.

One need only look at the detailed map of the Hawaiian island of Oahu he drew for me off the top of his head on a napkin during our lunchtime conversation.

Kerr, 90, is one of an estimated 8,000 survivors of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, who are still alive. Telling that story became a big part of his life.

(Click the audio player to hear a podcast version of this story from CNN's Matt Cherry.)

He points out Pearl Harbor, the adjacent Hickam Field, and even the path the Japanese planes took over the island on December 7, 1941.

"It’s important for people to know that there was such a thing as an attack in 1941 on December the 7th," Kerr said. "It’s part of history. It’s one of the biggest events in our history. 9/11 may equal it, but it can't be forgotten."

Nation pauses to recall Pearl Harbor

Kerr grew up in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, the same little town where the world's most famous groundhog makes his annual weather forecast. In 1940, Harry Robert Kerr (he always goes by "Bob") was a 19-year-old man trying to find work amid the Great Depression.

For a while, work was minor league baseball - a job that earned Kerr $90 a week. Unconvinced that his talents on the base paths would lead to major league glory, Kerr decided to enlist in the Army Air Corps. It was less money, but he figured it could provide a more stable future.

Before he knew it, he was Pvt. Bob Kerr, on a ship bound for Honolulu. He was stationed as a company clerk at Hickam Field. While Europe was at war, the United States was not, and Kerr thought he was as far away as he could possibly be from armed conflict.

"It never crossed my mind that there’d be a battle in the islands," Kerr said. "I’d read about nice, warm weather and hula girls. Never met a hula girl - met some other girls, though," he joked.

The morning of the attack, a Sunday, did not start out unusual. Kerr and his buddy Wally were on the second floor of their barracks, trying to decide whether to eat breakfast in the mess hall or at church.

They never had an opportunity to make that decision. At about 7:55 a.m., the bombing began. Gunfire from Japanese aircraft was poking holes in the barracks’ windows. Kerr says the mess hall where he’d been considering eating in had two direct hits, claiming 34 lives.

"At first people were saying the Navy is still playing with us. But why would they be shooting live ammunition? We had been on alert. We were bombing them with sacks of flour, they were bombing us with sacks of flour. Didn’t anyone tell the Navy the alert was called off?” Kerr recalled. “Then someone said, ‘That’s not a Navy plane. It’s a Japanese plane. It’s got a big red ball on the side of it.’”

Kerr said he knew then that America was at war.

"First thing I did, frankly, was go down into the latrine and brush my teeth," said Kerr, adding that he does not know what exactly made him do this wonderfully normal and mundane chore amid the chaos around him. "I then put on my battle gear and went down to the first floor. I was the squadron clerk. I figured I’d better get down there and pass out words of wisdom."

Stepping out on the porch of the barracks, Kerr saw a man in a cook's uniform lying on the ground. Rolling him over, Kerr realized the man was dead. It was the first time he had seen a dead body outside of a funeral parlor. Then, a thought crossed his mind.

"I’m the clerk of this outfit. Someone’s going to ask me who’s dead, who’s well, who isn't,” Kerr said. “I went into the orderly room, and I opened a safe to get a complete roster of our unit.”

War through a LIFE photographer's eyes

He remembers not being scared as he went about this task. Concerned, but not scared. He was simply focused on doing his duty. Kerr soon realized how much of a risk he was taking when a first sergeant came by and asked what he was doing. He duly explained his efforts to get the roster.

"He said, ‘Good thing, good thinking.’ It’s the last thing he said because a strafer (aircraft gunfire) got him just about then - killed him at the moment," Kerr said. "Right in front of my eyes while I’m looking at him."

Throughout the rest of the day, Kerr was focused on keeping tabs of the dead and living in his squadron. He went wherever troops might be concentrated, checking off his colleagues on the roster as he went along. In the end, 13 people in his squadron died as a result of the attack, as did about 2,400 other Americans. On a day that began with thoughts of breakfast, Kerr didn't eat a morsel until 10 that night at a Red Cross station.

The next day, he presented his squadron's roster to the base's commanding officer and was promoted on the spot. Kerr took it, even though it meant a pay cut.

"I was a second-class specialist, which drew $1 more than a sergeant. But I accepted it, and I’m glad I did because I moved on from there," Kerr said.

Kerr would go on to learn gunnery and radio, and he flew on missions over 32 islands during World War II. He married his high school sweetheart, Mary, while on leave in 1944, then re-enlisted a year later, after the war ended - buying a new car with his bonus. Kerr's military career continued for many years until he retired to the civilian life, settling down in Atlanta with a job at RCA.

Kerr has maintained his independence and still drives – even taking a long road trip from Atlanta back to Punxsutawney recently. He actually is on the road quite a bit, especially this time of year. As a district director for the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association - a group that will formally fold at the end of this year as the numbers of survivors dwindle – he travels to schools and community events to speak of his Pearl Harbor experience. Kerr enjoys this, but remembers one visit that was rather disheartening.

"The teacher introduced me and said I would be speaking about Pearl Harbor. One of the 7th grade girls in the audience asked, ‘Who was she?’ Now, do you think we need to talk about it and tell what it was about?"

Kerr said he’s not only been teaching others about the attack over the past 70 years, he’s also been learning - about forgiveness.

"Probably until 1991, I did not care for the Japanese one bit,” he said.

That changed when he and other survivors met in Hawaii with some of the Japanese pilots who helped carry out the attack. They had wanted to speak with some of the Americans who were on the ground as they were on that mission.

"They were as sorry to do it as we were about what we did to them," Kerr says. "They were soldiers, we were soldiers."

You can listen to the CNN Radio Reports podcast on itunes or subscribe to the podcast here.

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Filed under: Hawaii • War
soundoff (86 Responses)
  1. DN3

    Mark. O. David is funny. He comes on here and accuses people of saying something that wasn't said. Then, getting little response he tries again. Sounds to me he is looking for a war...I mean an argument. :)

    December 8, 2011 at 12:29 am | Report abuse |
  2. tif31

    ?

    December 8, 2011 at 12:29 am | Report abuse |
  3. DN3

    Amyways thanks Mr. Kerr for continuing to educate the younger generations on Pearl Harbour and the pacific war. Wars should never be forgotten,especially how they started. Based on your description of your experiences on Dec 7,1941, I am completely not surprised that you are sharp as a tack at 90!

    December 8, 2011 at 12:38 am | Report abuse |
  4. katherine

    Mark- your an ass. This article has to do with a Pearl Harbor survivor and his memory of that day. Not once does it mentioned

    December 8, 2011 at 8:18 am | Report abuse |
  5. katherine

    Mark- your an ass. This article has to do with a Pearl Harbor survivor and his memory of that day. Not once does it mentioned the 1% who "let" this happened. If it is true, okay then. Reposting constantly that pple need to educate themselves has nothing to do with this article. Educate yourself in humilty, and respect which you currently lack. This was seventy yrs ago. Nothing can be done about it now. If your so keen on educating us uneducated folks, go make a youtube video and see how many hits you get. Otherwise shut the hell up! As for our servicemen and women, I am proud to be an American. My grandfather served in WW11 in the Navy. His stories are amazing and so sad at the same time. Greatest Generation to my knowledge.

    December 8, 2011 at 8:28 am | Report abuse |
  6. jjj

    mark o david yes it was a sneak attack idiot

    January 20, 2012 at 6:08 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Pearl Necklaces

    Hello There. I found your blog using msn. That is a really well written article. I will make sure to bookmark it and come back to learn extra of your useful information. Thanks for the post. I'll certainly return.

    September 5, 2012 at 9:08 pm | Report abuse |
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