An Army Engineer at Pearl Harbor

One of the first images of Hickam Field after the bombing on 7 Dec 1941On the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a devastating aerial attack on U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The brunt of it fell on the U.S. Navy’s battleship fleet, but, to neutralize any defense, the Japanese also targeted fighter planes at the Army’s Wheeler Field. One young Army Engineer, 1st Lt. John Charles Geffel with the 804th Engineer Battalion (Aviation), saw it all and lived to write about it. His short but insightful journal tracks events from July 7, 1940, when he joined his first aviation company, through the attack he witnessed at Pearl Harbor. The quotes that follow are journal excerpts.

A native of Pittsburgh and an engineering student at what became Carnegie Mellon University, Geffel did his ROTC training at Fort Belvoir, graduated as a construction engineer in 1938, and received his commission. His subsequent assignments in Virginia left him dreaming of “Foreign Service,” and, in March 1941, he secured transfer to an aviation company bound for Hawaii. He sailed from New York on the U.S. Army Transport George Washington, which carried him through the Panama Canal to San Francisco (“a good party town”) before setting out for the islands on April 22. Two days later, Geffel received orders to report to a tent camp at Schofield Barracks instead of the nicer facility at Hickam Field.

Soon after arriving on April 26, 1941, he was on “24 hour duty – building plane bunkers at Wheeler Field.” Still in tents on September 20, Geffel noted that “work is progressing on Barracks for ourselves,” which were completed by Thanksgiving.  On December 6, Geffel, in a fateful conversation, told 1st Lt. Alfred O. Jones that “all the Army families should be evacuated [from the Hawaiian islands] because talks in Washington [with the Japanese] seemed to be failing.” Geffel stayed up late that night (“read till 5 a.m.”). Within hours, at 7:55 a.m., he was rudely awakened by explosions.

From the front door of his new barracks Geffel saw “huge clouds of smoke above Wheeler.” He stepped back inside and asked for guidance from the adjutant, who decided to stay in bed (“they didn’t call these damned maneuvers,” he said, “so – To Hell with it!”). Thinking back to earlier maneuvers in May, Geffel distinctly remembered that “we had no explosions like the ones that were shaking our quarters at the moment.” He hurriedly dressed and made his way to headquarters to alert the battalion. He “gave the bugler orders to blow the ‘Call to Arms’ at 8:30 a.m.,” and quickly the battalion readied itself for combat. Thanks to Geffel each company had “one day’s supply of ammo” and “belts for each of their machine guns.” By 9:30, companies A and C had pulled out, A to Wheeler and C to Hickam. According to one account, the 804th battalion of Army Engineers was the first Army unit to respond to the attack.

A wrecked P-40 at Bellows Field following the bombing on 7 Dec 1941Once the adjutant had made his way to headquarters, Geffel went to the warehouse and, not knowing what the day would bring but anticipating an invasion, “scribbled off a note to Phyllis [his girlfriend] & one to Mother… and planned to carry them with me from then on.” He began filling requests for “supplies, lumber, tools, camouflage materials and everything else.” The bombing stopped by about 10:00 a.m., but Geffel remembered little from the rest of the day. That night, he reported to the battalion and assumed his shift on a round-the-clock watch at headquarters. “We were taking no chances in not having someone awake at all times.” The invasion never came, so Army Engineers turned to the heavy cleanup effort. All eight U.S. Navy battleships were damaged, with four sunk. The Japanese also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship, and one minelayer; as many as 188 U.S. aircraft were ruined. The attack killed 2,403 Americans, and 1,178 were wounded, including two casualties from Geffel’s battalion – an enlisted man “wounded in both legs by machine gun bullets” and an officer “wounded quite seriously when an antiaircraft shell came down unexploded and let go alongside him.”

The Pearl Harbor raid was the most devastating foreign attack on U.S. soil up to that point, and it brought the United States into the Second World War. Geffel remained in Hawaii with the 804th as a supply officer for three years, rising to the rank of Major. He received the Defense Service Medal and a Bronze Service Star for service in the Gilbert Islands in February 1944. He transferred stateside that December and, at the end of the war, was at MacDill Field in Florida serving as an engineer aviation unit training officer. He discharged on January 18, 1946, and, having married, returned to his wife Phyllis and their home near Pittsburgh.

The Office of History at Headquarters, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, interviewed Major Geffel in 2010, the year before his death, and has acquired a small collection of his records, including documents related to Fort Belvoir and his service in Hawaii.

December 2016. No. 128.