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. really?

    I was lucky enough to be stationed in Hawaii and meet some of these courageous men, even getting them on private tours to the USS Arizona. I have seen the bullet holes that are still in buildings on Hickam Air Force Base. My heart goes out to these men as the numbers dwindle down, never wanting their stories to die. Please don't forget the men that perished on the USS Indianapolis, the forgotten ship that was sunk in the Pacific. God bless my fellow veterans, my heroes!!!!

    December 7, 2011 at 2:45 pm | Report abuse |
  2. mark o. david

    For those of you who can't stand the fact that Pearl H. was NOT a sneak attack:Research it and become educated

    December 7, 2011 at 3:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • Andy

      What does it matter? It was an atrocity, a tragedy, a catastrophe regardless of whether it was a "sneak attack" or not; this article was written in respect of those living and dead who had to go through such a terrible time, that their bravery should never be forgotten. It never claimed that it was a sneak attack, (though to say it was would have been reasonable) so your comment is obviously pontification, and serves only as an attempt to draw attention to yourself and your more detailed "education". Take your pedantic and unnecessary input elsewhere; no one wants to see it here.

      December 7, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • dudley0415

      We know the history. You should relax. Write a revisionist history book.

      December 7, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Veteran

    The WWII vets are the heroes of our country's darkest hour. We cannot honor them enough. I was fortunate enough to serve during peacetime in the 80s, but I will never forget what these brave men and women did to make it so that I could actually put in six years and never see a conflict.

    December 7, 2011 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Elizabeth

    I am glad to see that Pearl Harbor Day is not forgotten in the rest of the news of the day, and that gentlemen like Mr. Kerr are still alive to tell us what that day was like in all its terror and horror. Although it has been seventy years, there still has never been another attack by a sovereign nation against the United States on our territory. Pearl Harbor remains a unique experience in US history and should never be forgotten, not the least because it drew our country into World War II after years of deliberate isolationist policy and official neutrality despite the war raging in Europe. "Their" war became "our" war.

    It seems like the 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack is a significant milestone, but there is not much coverage to be seen. Will this be the nation's response to September 11 as the years pass as well? Now, ten years after the attack while it is relatively fresh in collective memory it receives a great deal of notice. What coverage will it receive in 70 years when the number of survivors have dwindled and the nation's attention has been drawn to other things?

    The Pearl Harbor Memorial was established so that we would never forget the day that lives in infamy. Let's try to remember it.

    December 7, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Iraq War Vet

    Why isn't this posted on the front page? How quick we forget.
    Doesn't effect me personally so I don't care? Sad.
    Wow! I'm sure the current war vets we have will be forgotten!
    Really selfish generation!

    December 7, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • BARAASE

      well, Americans are people of war. they can not live in peace since they started living on earth. they even killed people and took over their land from the day they arrived on the content. and you wonder why the rest of the world won't miss a chance to kill back??? this country is more of a military base that happened to do whatever the FU** it wants. and not even it's people could stop it from doing what the Jew government wants. GOOD LUCK AMERICAN people.

      December 8, 2011 at 12:21 am | Report abuse |
  6. dudley0415

    70 years.

    Hard to believe. Easy to remember.

    December 7, 2011 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Greatful American

    God bless you Mr. Kerr! Thank you for making this such a great nation! We'll be foreever greatful!

    December 7, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Jaden

    We should never forget the heroes of world war 2 or the heroes of ANY war for that matter.

    December 7, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Report abuse |
  9. nsaidi

    Thanks for the great comments, everyone. Greatly enjoyed reading your posts.

    December 7, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Report abuse |
  10. mark o. david

    Pearl Harbor a sneak attack?Nope.A person has to be a fool to still think that.Pearl Harbor is the best example of :Tell the patriots what they want to hear and they will believe anything.Enjoy your fantasy.Too bad that all those great American men had to die young because the 1% wanted more money.

    December 7, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Report abuse |
  11. 327th

    CNN censors in full force today....

    December 7, 2011 at 8:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • mark o. david

      What did you write about?

      December 7, 2011 at 9:25 pm | Report abuse |
  12. 90's Veteran

    Thank you, Mr Kerr for paving the way for the rest of us. I enjoyed your story very much. God bless you and God bless America

    December 7, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Report abuse |
  13. mark o. david

    Hey andy why not go for the truth ?Iy shows MORE respect to the dead

    December 7, 2011 at 8:52 pm | Report abuse |
  14. mark o. david

    Dud,9Your) history IS Revisionist

    December 7, 2011 at 9:09 pm | Report abuse |
  15. mark o. david

    JcarteR.Well it looks like you have 0 comments to make

    December 7, 2011 at 9:57 pm | Report abuse |
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