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  • Jeff Schober

80 years from 'Infamy'

Updated: Nov 16

South Buffalo resident, 87, remembers watching Japanese planes fly overhead in Hawaii during the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941

August 5, 2021: Alberta Dienhart examines a Hawaiian newspaper commemorating the attack on Pearl Harbor. © photo by Steven D. Desmond


On a Sunday morning in December, Alberta Groves attended mass with her sister at a small wooden Catholic church just a few blocks from her family’s home on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. Stern nuns occupied pews near the altar to keep a watchful eye on children seated up front, while the priest talked about the war in Europe and the atrocities committed by Germany’s leader, Adolf Hitler.

Because international issues rarely affect kids, Alberta didn’t pay close attention. She had turned seven two months before. But events during the next few minutes changed all of that.

In the middle of the service, blasts erupted nearby, rippling vibrations across the planked floors. Alberta thought perhaps the noises came from a volcano, although even in the moment she knew that was unlikely.

“God, we could hear the explosions,” she recalled. “Nobody knew what was happening, but I can still see a nun coming down the aisle and crossing the barrier to talk to Father. That’s a no-no for anyone to do that. My child’s mind picked up that something was very wrong.”

The date was December 7, 1941, and the neighborhood was just a few miles from Pearl Harbor, which locals referred to simply as “Pearl.”

Although she was born in Honolulu and spent her first 21 years in Hawaii, since 1956, Alberta has lived in South Buffalo, where she and her husband, Fred Deinhart, settled as newlyweds to be near his family after he left the Air Force. In the ensuing years, they built a life here, working and raising a family. Alberta Deinhart, now 87, is a rare Western New Yorker who was on the scene at Pearl Harbor to witness the Japanese attack that altered the course of world power.


Face to face

No one had any idea that history was being made that Sunday morning.

In the church, the priest announced that mass was suspended, and everyone was ordered home as the rattle of airplane engines pierced the air. Children were advised to stay off the roads, and instead told to walk along the gravel sides.

“Planes were flying over us, coming in low,” Alberta said. “When we got home, everyone was outside in the yard — my mother and my brother, Orby Jr., who had just turned 12. He had been down the street playing with his friends, and they were there too. We stood in the middle of the yard with planes passing over us. We didn’t have big trees like we do in Buffalo, so we saw everything. We still didn’t know what was happening.”

Few Hawaiians had phones in their homes then; the primary source of news came from radio. But in real time, no one considered that radio would feature live reports yet.

“Some neighbor must have figured out that we were being attacked. We knew they were Japanese. We could hear noises coming from Pearl.”

As her family stood in their rocky yard, a plane flew low overhead, perhaps 200 feet above the ground. Alberta locked eyes with the pilot.

“This was only for a split second, but I looked up at him and he looked down at me,” Alberta said. “We were face-to-face. I saw his round face and skull cap. I can’t tell if he had a bomb onboard or not. I can still remember his features. In years since, I’ve wondered what happened to him and what he thought about as he looked into the face of a 7-year-old girl.

Alberta Dienhart today. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

As planes whizzed overhead, Orby and his friends picked up stones that were scattered throughout the yard and began hurling them skyward, fruitlessly attempting to defend their turf. None of the rocks connected with a passing plane.

“They didn’t bother shooting at us,” Alberta shrugged. “Why bother with a few civilians? They weren’t going to waste their ammunition.”

Alberta’s mother, Amelia, recognized that her children weren’t safe, so she corralled everyone inside. By then, Alberta’s father, Orby Sr., had been wakened and rushed to the radio. Originally from North Carolina, he worked at Pearl as a civilian machinist. Once he realized the base was under attack, he hurried there, eager to help. Alberta doesn’t remember him returning home again until three days had passed. For the rest of his life, he never talked about what he witnessed that day.

It wasn’t until years later, as she grew older and began to grasp history, that Alberta understood she had been in the eye of a storm. She reasoned that the pilot whose face she saw had probably already attacked Pearl and was circling around to hit the adjacent Hickam Air Force Base.

Historical background

The surprise attack occurred at 7:48 a.m. local time, with Japan using fighters, dive bombers and torpedo bombers launched in two waves from six aircraft carriers. One hundred eighty-eight U.S. aircraft were destroyed, although many of these were later raised and returned to service. The death toll: 2403 Americans killed and 1178 others wounded.

At Hickam Air Force Base, 189 people were killed and 303 wounded that day when Japanese planes bombed and strafed the base to prevent American aircraft from chasing the Japanese back to their aircraft carriers. Hickam has since merged with the Naval Station Pearl Harbor and is now known as Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. The base shares runways with the Honolulu Airport.

Fred Deinhart, who was stationed at Hickam in the 1950s, remembers seeing bullet holes in buildings there, a decade after the war had ended.

Two Western New York college professors provided historical context about the surprise attack.

“I suppose some people could have seen this coming, but at this time no one was taking Japan very seriously,” said Dr. Martin Ederer, a Clarence native and longtime history professor at Buffalo State College who teaches courses about World War II. “Everyone was looking at Europe. It was a wonderful distraction for Japan to build its empire.”

Ederer noted the complex diplomacy and conflicts of interest in the Pacific region at the time, involving Japan, Russia, the Philippines and Burma. At the start of the 20th Century, think tank scholars had anticipated that the United States and Japan would come to blows.

“Who was really paying attention to Hawaii at all?” Ederer wondered. “Hawaii is a state now, but they weren’t until 1959. It held one of many U.S. bases in the Pacific, and Pearl Harbor was the best of those.”

Dr. Martin Ederer of Buffalo State College

Although World War II had been raging in Europe for several years, the United States had officially remained neutral. Before December 7, many Americans were reluctant to become involved in the global conflict.

“In the run-up to World War II, no one wanted to get involved with what was thought to be a European problem,” Ederer explained. “Throughout the 1930s, a lot of Americans had a bad taste from World War I. There needed to be something to get the Americans involved. Certainly, the attack at Pearl Harbor was the spark.”

Dr. Sasha Pack, a history professor at the University at Buffalo, said that military experts were surprised to discover Japan had the logistical capacity to undertake such a detailed attack across the Pacific Ocean.

“The Japanese were certainly admirers of what Hitler was doing in Germany — quick shock and awe attacks that threw an enemy off balance,” Pack said. “There were no declarations of war or long, slow buildups of forces. They wanted a surprise attack. We should have expected something like that.”

In 1939, Pack explained, Japan had lost an engagement with Russia over a border dispute in eastern Siberia. The Japanese remembered that experience when they viewed the United States.

Dr. Sasha Pack of the University at Buffalo

“Part of the Japanese thinking with Pearl Harbor was ‘We can’t afford for America to take us on the way the Soviets did. We need to knock them out quickly.’ It’s America’s only forward position. It makes sense tactically, but when you look back, it was foolish to invade.”

In fact, Pack noted, Japanese Navy Admiral Takijiro Onishi had cautioned his fellow military minds of this before Pearl Harbor.

“He said that if you attack Americans unprovoked, without a declaration of war, American pride is such that they will never reach a compromise with you,” Pack said. “Takijiro cited the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in the Spanish-American War and the sinking of the Luisitania in World War I. He said it’s in the Americans’ DNA. Takijiro was a student of history and had his finger on the pulse of the American character. But nobody in Japan listened to him. Sure enough, four years later, we were using atomic weapons and demanding unconditional surrender.”

But all that was still to come. On Monday, December 8, President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously addressed Congress: “Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

Congress declared war within the hour.


Growing up in Hawaii

Hawaii’s location as a fueling stopover in the Pacific Ocean brought people of all nationalities together, according to Alberta Deinhart. She remembers being raised among families who were Japanese, Filipino, and Portuguese.

A memento in the Dienhart's living room serves as a reminder of Alberta's childhood in Hawaii. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

“Before civil rights, help wanted ads said ‘Japanese preferred’ and they meant it,” she said. “There are a lot of Japanese people in Hawaii. I went to school with these kids and knew they were smart. There was never a dumb Japanese kid in school. Employers wanted them because they were good workers who kept their heads down and their mouths shut. All my friends were mixed nationalities and we all got along.”

In fact, before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Alberta remembers her next-door neighbor had predicted something like this might occur.

“I don’t remember his name, but our neighbor on one side was an older Japanese man who lived with his son and his son’s wife and his grandkids.”

The man had taken a trip to his homeland, and when he returned to Hawaii, he began digging a deep hole in his yard. Everyone in the neighborhood was curious.

“My mother was hanging laundry outside, and she said, ‘Papasan, what are you doing?’ He came over and told her he was building a bomb shelter. My mother said ‘What is a bomb shelter? Why are you building that?’”

The man explained that in Japan, citizens were readying for war with America. There was an energy and excitement about it, he said.

“You tell your old man to do the same,” the neighbor advised. “Build a bomb shelter. War is coming.”

Although Alberta’s father did not dig a hole, whenever there was an air raid siren, the neighbor came to their door and addressed Alberta’s mother. “Miss, bring your children,” he said. “You come.”

“So, we would go down into this bomb shelter with dirt and earth,” Alberta recalled. “He dug it by hand with his son helping. There was a long bench, and he had a shelf with a radio so we could hear what was happening. It was deep enough that we could stand, and it was so cool down there. We’d stay, us and his family, until the air raid ended. They were very nice, very good people.”


Alberta Dienhart remembers seeing a Japanese pilot fly overhead. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

As 1941 ended and the new year dawned, life in Hawaii changed quickly. Rumors began to spread about people of different nationalities, Alberta recalled. A German family that lived across the street moved away suddenly, right around the time that people began whispering about the German flag that hung on their wall.

“People from the mainland were pouring into Hawaii to work for the military,” she said. “Because our house was close to Pearl, the landlord wanted us out and military personnel in. We moved to Honolulu, and I can tell you it was a sea of white with all the sailors.”

Public parks were converted into military zones that housed men in Quonset huts.

“There was a park across the street from my school called Thomas Square Park,” Alberta said. “My brother Tommy and I used to go down there and talk to the men living there. They gave us Hershey bars and K-rations. All these men were getting drafted and trained. If they were going to the Pacific, they had to stop in Hawaii for transportation, and they needed spots to put all these guys.”

From Hawaii to Buffalo

Moving to Buffalo had never been the plan when Alberta was growing up. But then she met Fred Deinhart when they were both 21. Fred grew up near Seneca Street in South Buffalo and had enlisted in the Air Force. He was stationed at Hickam Air Force Base when the couple met in Honolulu. At the time, Alberta worked behind the counter at a roller rink.

Wedding photo, 1956.

“We knew each other three months before we were married,” Alberta said. “It was just one of those things. He was due to get discharged in six months. We came to Buffalo in August 1956.”

Before that, Alberta had never even visited the continental United States, but wasn’t intimidated by the move.

“I hadn’t been home in three years,” Fred explained. “I was eager to come back.”

“He wanted to see his parents and he wanted them to see me,” Alberta added. “It wasn’t scary coming here, even though we were young. That’s the strangest thing. I just went with it.”

From Hawaii, the newlyweds boarded a ship that took six days to reach California. From there, they traveled by train, a trip that spanned three days before their leg culminated at the Central Terminal on Buffalo’s east side.

“When I came here to Buffalo and saw double houses, I thought, what are these, mansions?” Alberta recalled.

For more than 35 years, they lived on Melrose off Seneca Street, although they have since moved to a one-story home off Abbott Road. The Deinharts raised three children: David, 59, Mark, 58, and Lesa, 56, and have three grandsons.

Fred worked at Bethlehem Steel until it closed in 1983, then continued in manufacturing as a millwright, finally retiring in 1996.

As their children grew, Alberta worked in food service for the Buffalo schools.

“I wanted a little part-time job,” she said. “Nothing 9 to 5, but something to break up my day, and that was a good job. I was off during the summer when the kids were off, so it worked out all right.”

As years passed, she recognized that she was an eyewitness to history. At the approach of the 80th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, her memories remain sharp.

“It was a day that should not be forgotten,” she reflected. “But there are not many people left to remember. That’s why I wish to tell my story. I’ve never met anybody from Western New York who was also at Pearl.”

Alberta and Fred Dienhart, with portraits when they were each 21 years old. © photo by Steven D. Desmond


© 2021 by Jeff Schober

www.jeffschober.com


A print version of this story appeared in the fall 2021 issue of Western New York Heritage magazine. Find it on newsstands now.


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