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Recalling Pearl Harbor, 72 years later

Gene Erlandson of Worthington had been at Wheeler Air Base, about 20 miles from Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese Imperial Army struck on Dec. 7, 1941. (JULIE BUNTJER/DAILY GLOBE)

WORTHINGTON — Seventy-two years ago today, Eugene Erlandson was walking toward his barracks when Japanese fighter planes darkened the sky over the Hawaiian Islands, dropping bombs that wiped out an entire fleet of P-40 fighter planes at Wheeler Air Field, where he was stationed.

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It was the first round of attacks by the Japanese Imperial Army that Sunday morning. By the time the fighter planes left, four American battleships were sunk at U.S. Naval Base Pearl Harbor, another four were damaged and more than 2,400 Americans were dead.

At 94, Erlandson remembers the day’s events well. He hid behind palm trees and watched as the Japanese bombers flew overhead. Some were so close he could see the pilot steering the aircraft.

“I’d worked all night and was going back to the barracks to have a nap,” recalled Erlandson, who now resides with his wife, June, at The Meadows in Worthington. “We were the first attacked. They hit Wheeler first because of the P-40s — the fighter planes. They were lined up for inspection.”

The Japanese bombers wiped out all but a couple of the aircraft, which happened to be off base at the time.

“They were the only two that made it back and got up,” Erlandson said. “I can remember when they came back. I was so glad to see them.”

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Wheeler Field, Erlandson had only been on the Air Force Base for six days. He had no weapon, knew no one and had no idea where to go.

“I just ran in the opposite direction, I guess,” he said. “There wasn’t anything anybody could do too much with — you didn’t have firearms or anything.”

For weeks after the attack, the military feared a second invasion on the Hawaiian Islands. Erlandson recalled the nightly blackouts, during which lights were not allowed in the barracks or on vehicles. If people had to drive somewhere in the dark, they had to use small flashlights to guide their way.

Communications were also non-existent. Erlandson said it was more than a month before he could send a letter home to his parents’ rural Rushmore farm to let them know he was still alive.

“They didn’t pass information around like they do now,” he said, referring to email and text messaging.

With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor leading into World War II, the 18-month stint Erlandson anticipated when he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force turned into a 47-month tour of duty in Hawaii, and a total of 49 months serving his country.

The wannabe pilot

Growing up a farm kid between Rushmore and Adrian, Erlandson had dreams of flying through the air instead of plowing through the fields.

He graduated from then-Worthington Junior College after being part of the first class of students to take flying lessons. There were 10 students in all — nine men and one woman.

“That was in 1940,” Erlandson shared. “I was trying to get in (the Air Force) as a flyer, but it was a good thing I didn’t.”

Of the 10 students, he was one of three who didn’t get in as a pilot —an eye problem kept him from passing. The other two were the woman and another farmer student.

“The other seven were dead within the first year because they got into flying,” Erlandson said.

When Erlandson was denied as a pilot in the Air Force, he continued to seek pilot duties with the Army, Navy and Marines. After being denied by all of those branches, he signed on with the Air Force to do other duties.

Erlandson left the family farm behind, got a ride to Fort Snelling with a recruiter, and enlisted on Aug. 25, 1941.

“I had the choice of the Philippines or the Hawaiian Islands,” he recalled, adding that he chose Hawaii without even knowing where it was.

“I was stupid, but I was lucky. I wouldn’t be here if I went to the Philippines.”

Erlandson completed six weeks of basic training on Bellows Field, Hawaii, and was moved to Wheeler Air Field on Dec. 1, 1941. He had signed up for clerical duties, but after the Japanese struck six days later, there was no time for training.

Erlandson pulled guard duty at Wheeler Field, primarily working at the main gate. He had his first and only furlough three years later, which allowed him the opportunity to return home briefly to see his family.

After returning to base, Erlandson was assigned to Wheeler Field Headquarters until the end of the war. He was honorably discharged on Sept. 19, 1945.

Life after war

Upon his return to southwest Minnesota, Erlandson found work at Philgas in Worthington, where he remained until it closed.

He and his wife were married in 1950, and in 1958, they started farming. The couple raised five children on the farm.

Soon after he began farming, Erlandson traveled to California to take part in the official formation of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. The group remained intact through Dec. 31, 2011 — weeks after the 70th anniversary of the attack. More than 100 Pearl Harbor survivors attended the reunion.

“There’s not many of us left around,” said Erlandson, who was once part of a group of southwest Minnesota Pearl Harbor survivors. Now, he knows of just one other veteran — from Mankato —who served on the Hawaiian Islands during the surprise Japanese attack. The Minnesota group stopped meeting four or five years ago, he said.

Erlandson visited Pearl Harbor to mark both the 25th and 60th anniversary of the attack as a member of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. Pearl Harbor continues to host an annual event marking the Dec. 7 anniversary, and two years ago, the Erlandsons’ son, Gary, attended. Gary, along with his sister, Diane Otero, are members of the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors.

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at The Farm Bleat

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