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. Soljagurl

    MR KERR THANK YOU FOR YOUR STORY. Thank you for serving and teaching us about your day. You are a hero...

    December 7, 2011 at 10:03 am | Report abuse |
  2. John Kaufman, Oceanside, CA

    Those who have the courage to follow their convictions are the only ones who have trure VALOR!

    December 7, 2011 at 10:04 am | Report abuse |
  3. palintwit

    Speech therapy experts at Sarah Palin University are currently trying to find a way to "de-shriek" Sarah Palin's voice. It seems that most people would rather be locked in a room full of squeaky balloons than have to listen to her.

    December 7, 2011 at 10:13 am | Report abuse |
    • Lorraine

      Yes, I believe you are a Palintwit, since you're posting on the wrong story! Grab a brain!

      December 7, 2011 at 10:15 am | Report abuse |
  4. Name*luigi

    Let bygone be bygone .war is is terrible thing that happens but there is always a forgiveness within each others.

    December 7, 2011 at 10:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      Forgiveness is one thing. "FORGETTING" is another. The attack on Pearl Harbor was one of the most significant events in this country's history and that shoud never be fogotten. These men and women are american heros and their sacrifice and loyalty will NEVER be forgotten. I'm proud to say that my father was a WWll vet., serving in China and my 10 year old son knows more about it than most adults today.
      We owe it to ourselves and future generations to remember what happened and pass it to our children or it will happen again somewhere, some way.
      As said – FORGIVE – don't FORGET

      December 7, 2011 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Bill Horne

    I was 11 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed/ Bob Kerr and all others who saved us in WW11 have always been my heroes. Thank you Mr Kerr !!!

    December 7, 2011 at 10:20 am | Report abuse |
  6. Lorraine

    I'm Canadian, and yet I got just as choked up reading Mr. Kerr's story...Dec. 7, 1941 belongs to the world's history, not just America's, because if it hadn't been for that terrible day, the US' entry into WW II would've been delayed, and who knows how many more lives would've been lost in the European theater of war. Something good coming out of something terrible...a pattern that was started at Calvary. God bless you, Mr. Kerr, and all your fellow servicemen and women, and I really mean it!

    December 7, 2011 at 10:20 am | Report abuse |
  7. Karen Baker

    Bob Kerr and his fellow servicemen and women will be remembered for their sacrifice and courage throughout this Countrys' history! Thank you Sir for your brave service to the United States of America.

    December 7, 2011 at 10:23 am | Report abuse |
  8. Jon

    Thank you sir. Every story I hear brings me closer to learning more about my grandfather that I never got to meet. While not a survivor of the attacks at pearl harbor, he was a veteran of the pacific theater. All the men and women who served, those who gave the supreme sacrifice deserve the knowledge to know we will never forget and tell our sons and grandkids about the perseverance of a great generation

    December 7, 2011 at 10:26 am | Report abuse |
  9. palintwit

    We may have won WW2, but we let the little nippers kick our asses economically.

    December 7, 2011 at 10:36 am | Report abuse |
  10. teapartier

    so, what about that girl he was asked about, Pearl Harbor? A past tropical romance?

    December 7, 2011 at 10:54 am | Report abuse |
    • palintwit

      I'd be awfully embarrassed to have a screen name like ' teapartier '.

      December 7, 2011 at 11:02 am | Report abuse |
  11. Mark Kerr

    Great story!

    December 7, 2011 at 11:16 am | Report abuse |
  12. John Belushi

    Did we give up when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? NO!

    December 7, 2011 at 11:34 am | Report abuse |
    • dudley0415

      "I'm a BUG!!"

      December 7, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Really Jersey

    Thank You, Bob.

    December 7, 2011 at 11:36 am | Report abuse |
  14. s kel

    I wrote a quote from Adm Yamamoto ,who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor and these fools on cnn wont let it on here.

    December 7, 2011 at 11:46 am | Report abuse |
  15. s kel

    screw cnn, it goes like this" all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and will find him( the USA) filled with a terriable resolve".

    December 7, 2011 at 11:49 am | Report abuse |
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