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. michaelfury

    “The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today.”

    – George W. Bush in his diary, 9/11/2001

    http://michaelfury.wordpress.com/2010/12/06/an-opportunity/

    December 7, 2011 at 7:14 am | Report abuse |
    • BOBBY

      There is no comparison whatsover. 100dreds of thousands of US military and civilians died as a result of that day...big difference.

      December 7, 2011 at 9:43 am | Report abuse |
    • echopolitics

      @Bobby,
      you are dumb. Hundreds of thousands dies as a result of both of those days...very comparable. About the same number of American casualties each of those days as well.

      December 7, 2011 at 11:05 am | Report abuse |
  2. gung hoe

    Ya I remember when them survivers met with the enemy pilots it was on t v. I had thought then that that was cool.

    December 7, 2011 at 7:56 am | Report abuse |
  3. Mark L.

    Bob Kerr – I SALUTE YOU – GOD BLESS YOU ALWAYS, SIR !!!!

    December 7, 2011 at 8:58 am | Report abuse |
  4. Fletcher E. Ward

    We, who have lived in freedom because of Bob and the men and women who went to war and who have continued to leave friends and family to go to war in all the interim years have a debt to pay. Repay that debt today. Thank a vet, then ask him or her about their service to our country. You will both be glad you did.

    December 7, 2011 at 9:16 am | Report abuse |
  5. Portland tonyxvc

    I SALUTE YOU SIR....YOU LIKE ALL VETERANS OF OUR WARS DESERVE NOTHING BUT HONOR!

    December 7, 2011 at 9:20 am | Report abuse |
  6. banasy©

    This story brought tears to my eyes.
    I saw through his eyes; the horrors of that day still live on through his memories, and yet, he found forgiveness for the soldiers who killed his Sergeant right before his eyes...
    What a testament to the power of the human spirit. Thank you for your sacrifices and your service to this country.
    I salute you, and all of our veterans, today and every day.

    December 7, 2011 at 9:28 am | Report abuse |
  7. Grace Of The Witch

    Sad.
    9:27 am Wed dec 7th 2011
    and there are 3 posts here.
    What the heck are we teaching in school ?

    God bless you Bob Kerr.

    December 7, 2011 at 9:28 am | Report abuse |
  8. palintwit

    Test

    December 7, 2011 at 9:37 am | Report abuse |
  9. C

    Bob Kerr, God bless you always for your service to this country!!!

    December 7, 2011 at 9:43 am | Report abuse |
  10. BOBBY

    would like to get about an hour of that guys time witha recorder

    December 7, 2011 at 9:44 am | Report abuse |
    • Sabina

      You can read & listen to other WW2 veterans stories on the Library of Congress website in the Veterans History Project section. I know this because I had my dad interviewed for this project. He served in the Air Force during the war and one of his proudest moments was when he was interviewed for this project and knew it would be in the Library.
      Thanks, Bobby for telling your story also. And thanks again, Dad.
      http://www.loc.gov/vets/

      December 7, 2011 at 10:03 am | Report abuse |
    • BOBBY

      THANKS SABINA!!

      December 7, 2011 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
  11. Dawm Procopio

    Thank you. It is an honor to live in such a beautiful country. Those that do not live here only wish they could. To be honored by your memories and sharing your story I salute you. Thank you for protecting my country and also my freedom. God Bless The United States of America, and also you.

    December 7, 2011 at 9:45 am | Report abuse |
  12. rooney

    Great story! Thanks Mr. Kerr and thanks to all of our vets.

    December 7, 2011 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
  13. Joe T.

    Great story! It's becoming all too common that people forget about our greatest generation. Thank you and all veterans for your service!

    December 7, 2011 at 9:50 am | Report abuse |
  14. CuriousG

    Thankfully, I can't imagine what it is like to be in a place where I am being bombed. Seeing all the injured, much less actually knowing them or being related to them is painfully sad.

    December 7, 2011 at 9:50 am | Report abuse |
  15. John Kaufman, Oceanside, CA

    I hope with all my being that we, as a Nation NEVER FORGET that day December 7th 1941. Why, because it says our country must always be on vigil as to what is taking place around the world and who is doing what. There are those who wish to distroy this country and its people FACT. That is why we should have in place a simple Rules of Engagement. This is not a threat to others, it simply states what we believe in and will do if threated with violence. ie 9/11/2001

    December 7, 2011 at 9:59 am | Report abuse |
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