Army Sgt. Bob Kerr appears in Honolulu days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Kerr commandeered a truck during the attack to drive a wounded soldier to the hospital. He ended up making several trips moving the wounded that day.
Confusion reigned in Honolulu during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor 70 years ago this month, but the quick thinking of Bob Kerr helped save lives on that "day that will live in infamy."
Kerr enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1940 after graduating from high school in Pennsylvania. He was sent to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii to finish training and was assigned as squadron personnel and payroll clerk for the Air Corps at Hickam Field.
At 7:55 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, Kerr and another serviceman were dressing for church services. Kerr said they headed to breakfast when they heard the roar of low-flying airplanes.
"One guy said, 'That's the Navy still practicing,' then somebody else yelled, 'Those are red balls on those airplanes; hell, they're Japs!'" Kerr said. "Then suddenly all the window screens were shredded to pieces by strafing Zeros."
Kerr sprinted outside amid the chaos. He realized the squadron roster would be helpful, so he ran inside the office to open the safe that contained the roster.
As Kerr opened the safe the first sergeant appeared in the doorway demanding an explanation. "I told him what I was doing," Kerr said. "Then the first sergeant said, 'Good idea,' but those were his last words. He was killed instantly by strafing bullets."
Kerr stuffed the roster in his jacket and darted outside, only to be confronted by a wounded soldier named Baker.
Baker was bleeding badly from his elbow and shoulder and he needed medical help.
"I noticed an abandoned army truck near the barracks so I told him to jump in," Kerr said. "I got in and started the engine but more wounded arrived and a couple of guys were loading the dead on the back. We left with a full load, but I'd never driven a truck before so I couldn't get the thing out of first gear. Luckily, the hospital was only a half mile away."
At the hospital, Kerr noticed a nurse standing outside directing the casualties.
"She sent slightly wounded soldiers one way and the seriously wounded in another direction," he said. "We just stacked up the dead; we didn't know what else to do."
In 1991 Kerr traveled to Hawaii to attend the 50th anniversary of the attack.
"The nurse was there too," he said. "She remembered me, good-naturedly claiming that during the raid I had driven the most disorganized ambulance she'd even seen!"
Kerr's life-saving 'disorganized ambulance' made three more runs for the dead and wounded.
"On one trip a Jap Zero flew straight at us to strafe, but he never fired," he said. "Over the years I've talked to several veteran Japanese pilots of the attack and all of them said that pilot was undoubtedly out of ammo."
The next morning with roster in hand, Kerr made a personnel check of the survivors, the wounded, the dead or missing from his squadron. Impressed by Kerr's quick thinking and grasping the pragmatism of a roster-check, the base adjutant ordered every unit to follow suit.
In the days and months following the attack, Kerr remained as squadron personnel and payroll clerk but took night courses in navigation.
"I sort of flunked out. Most of the guys said I'd fly 'into' Diamond Head instead of 'over' it." Not dissuaded, Kerr took and passed training for B-25 aerial gunners and radio operators. In September of 1942, Kerr became an assistant radio operator and waist gunner on a B-25 Mitchell bomber and remained in combat until early 1945.
He flew and fought over 32 different islands on the B-25, protected his plane from marauding Zeros with his .50 caliber machine gun, and survived a forced-landing on the island of Tarawa after the Mitchell lost an engine.
Kerr flew eight missions in one day over the atrocious battlefield of Peleliu, strafed enemy positions on nearly every mission in the Pacific, and by 1944 flew from the atoll of Kwajalein. But evidently prolonged exposure to .50 calibre machine gun fire is not conducive to sensitive eardrums.
Kerr failed a hearing test during his physical on Eniwetok.
"I couldn't hear the difference between a dot and a dash," he admitted.
Kerr was reassigned to personnel and clerical duties at Orlando Field in Florida but finished out the war on the island of Guam. He remained in the Army and climbed the ranks until retiring as a major in 1963.
Kerr worked 11 years for Radio Corporation of America then managed the Lakewood Christian Manor for senior citizens in southwest Atlanta for 17 years. Kerr presently serves as chaplain at Christian City in Union City.