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. Lee Crowell

    This is a very interesting article and the content is so important. It's a shame that it's so poorly written.

    December 7, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Report abuse |
    • bunnie

      Geeeeeez! Thank you for illustrating why we are not America's greatest generation.

      December 7, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Joy Barefoot

    My Uncle, James Franklin Stalvey, was a Bataan Death March Survivor. He is now deceased, but my brother recently posted a lot of camp survivor information on his Air Force Association's blog site. If you are interested in reading a first hand account from one of the survivors; please go to this site:
    -then go to supplemental information and you will find an index to the material

    Hope you find it informative.
    Joy Barefoot

    December 7, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Report abuse |
  3. TheThinker

    The best CNN article of 2011. Godspeed to Mr Kerr.

    December 7, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Faiga

    This man is a true heroe. I have the honor to be at Pearl Harbor today for such an important event. My children need to know the importance of this date.

    December 7, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Report abuse |
  5. MissWendy

    God bless you, Bob. Thank you for your service.

    December 7, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Mario

    May God bless each one of the young men who died that day. They are stiLl young and live in our hearts for ever.

    December 7, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • mark o. david

      Every one of those brave boys were sacrificed on the alter of corporate profit.Pearl Har. was NOT a sneak attack.Study the researched facts and be enraged .

      December 7, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • bobcat (in a hat)

      @mark o. david
      I can see you are a person with a lot of class. You pick this day of all days to spew your hate. Why do you feel the need to downgrade these heroes ? At least they have done something to make a difference in the world. What have you done ?

      December 7, 2011 at 6:23 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Dan

    Wow still smiling after all he has been through! They were America's greatest generation without a doubt! God bless you Sir, and thanks for defending my country and affording me a chance to live and breathe freedom! We can never repay these men and women!!1

    December 7, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Report abuse |
  8. palintwit

    I'll bet these survivors are just happy there were no ships in our fleet named the "USS Teabagger" or the "USS Nascar" or the "USS Sarah Palin".

    December 7, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
  9. bunnie

    Without a doubt America's greatest generation.

    December 7, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Report abuse |
  10. mark o. david

    I just hope that NO ONE still believes that Pearl Harbor was a sneak attack.The overwhelming body of evidence proves that this was allowed to happen so that Americ an could enter the war.This was very much a requirement of 1% of americans to increase their personal wealth.Charles Lindbergh Was very aware of the situation and spoke on the publicly on the subject.Fact:The brave men who died here were sacrificed on the alter of corporate profit

    December 7, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • palintwit

      I'll bet you're a birther.

      December 7, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • bunnie

      There is no evidence that it wasn't sneak attack. There is overwhelming evidence that Roosevelt wanted to stay out of the war, and maintain a supportive role. However, your conspriracy theory is so idiotic it proves that we are definately not the greatest generation.

      December 7, 2011 at 2:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • dean stania


      December 7, 2011 at 2:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • bobcat (in a hat)

      @mark o. david
      I just hope no one still believes that you were actually born in the conventional way. You have really got to be some kind of lowlife to belittle these heroes like this. I hope you enjoy your miserable life.

      December 7, 2011 at 6:27 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Me

    Thank you Bob, and all veterans for your sacrifices and service.

    December 7, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Dakubs

    In 1952 at 19 I sat all by myself in a dinner in Bakersfield having a Beer the woman who served me sat in a corner starring at me. She finally walked over & said how old are U I said 19. Tears came down her cheeks she said in a German accent My Boy, he was 17 he wanted to go in the Navy, he played the Trumpet, he was asleep in his bed on
    the Arizona. I told my Daughter this story after she visited Hiroshima & told me what heartless cruel people we were.

    December 7, 2011 at 1:41 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Joe K

    God bless those individuals! Forgiveness is key and takes alot more guts. They are soldiers...we are soldiers 13B

    December 7, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Joe K 13B

    Yes Mr. Kerr... God bless u! They were soldiers...we were soldiers. Forgiveness is key. Doesnt mean we dont protect at all cost. Love USA!

    December 7, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Jason

    Thank you Mr. Kerr for your service and sacrifices to our country. My grandfather, who is 89, is also a veteran of WW2 and I fear that he soon we leave us like the many that already have from the Greatest Generation. I myself am a veteran of 2 Iraq tours as a Cavalry Scout in the Army, but when it comes to my grandfather I can't even consider myself one. They took on a monumental task and sacrificed very heavily compared to our casualty numbers today. Most were drafted, fought, came home and never bragged about it. To them it was their obligation to a country that allowed them to have a childhood away from violence and oppression and ultimately live a life that is only limited by your own aspirations, nothing more. Its important that we carry on their stories and never forget what they did to ensure this country remained free.

    December 7, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Report abuse |
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