In 1941, Bob Snider was an 8-year-old kid interested in the world of 8-year-old kids, Oahu version: climbing trees, going shoeless on the beach, and studying the massive Navy fleet docked not far from his front door on Pearl Harbor.
“I passed them on the way to school,” Snider said. “Of course I was fascinated by boats.”
Early one December Sunday, he was outside stripping mulberries off a bush and eating them while his parents slept. A booming commotion erupted in the harbor. He ran to the family’s pier to find “columns of smoke and strange noises” in the air; over the next couple of hours, Snider and his parents had an uncomfortably close view of the infamous morning.Thus, for Snider, that day – that epic, world-changing day when Japan attacked the U.S. – became an epic, world-changing moment in his own life. It ended his family’s time in old Hawaii and brought them to Spokane, where Snider eventually went to school and became a school teacher and artist. Now, 70 years later, it has evolved into a touchstone of immense power for Snider – a connection to his parents, who have passed away, and to a bygone time and place.
“The Hawaii I knew as a kid was a lot different than after World War II,” he said.
Snider makes a point of commemorating the day every year. He still has a jagged piece of shrapnel he collected from his yard. He has built a replica of the destroyers that sank that day, made a memorial T-shirt, and produced a small book of remembrances and photographs. He uses his 49-inch-long destroyer as his dining table centerpiece during the week of Dec. 7 every year.
“When I look at the destroyer, it takes me back to the attack and the days that followed,” he wrote in his remembrance. “Back in those days the 4-piper destroyers were our very close water neighbors. We could hear the sailors talk, hear their movies, music, etc. On Dec. 7, I saw them fight our enemy. … For me, it was the ships and the crew I saw that saved me! I felt very safe with their presence.”
Snider’s father, Stanley, was a civilian aircraft mechanic working at the military bases on the territory of Oahu, and his mother, Faith, was an artist who taught at the University of Hawaii in Pearl City. He recalls his boyhood as idyllic: a pre-boom and pre-statehood Hawaii marked by sugar cane and pineapple fields, water buffalo and rice paddies. In particular, he recalls the excellent opportunities for climbing in the banyan trees and other trees around his home.
“I fell out of a lot of trees,” he said.
In the early moments of the attack on Dec. 7, Snider recalls being more fascinated than afraid. He initially went out to the pier and watched; the USS Utah battleship, which eventually sank, was about a mile from the family’s home, and the Arizona, on which more than 1,000 Americans died, was about twice that distance. Snider’s dad eventually called him in, and they all watched from Snider’s bedroom and then from the lanai.
“We could see the Japanese planes diving down and we could see all the commotion in the sky,” Snider said. “Everything was pretty exciting until the Japanese bullet missed dad.”
The stray bullet came through the house and whizzed by a few feet from his dad, Snider said. Later, he would find an American shell had struck the house, as well. But the Japanese bullet brought home the reality of what was happening; Snider’s mom became intensely afraid and upset, and so did he.
“All that noise and commotion and smoke – it’s overwhelming,” he said. “When the second wave came, it sounded like a hailstorm on the neighbor’s roof.”
His father rushed to Hickam Field to help and left them in a stairwell in a makeshift bunker padded with mattresses and blankets. The attack itself was over within a couple of hours, but life on the island changed radically. Martial law was declared, blackouts were enforced, and there was a persistent fear of another attack.
By summer of 1942, Snider’s parents decided to send him back to the states – he flew alone to California to stay with relatives, and they followed shortly thereafter. His father was coming to take over as the head of repairs at the Spokane Army Air Depot, a repair station for warplanes at Felts Field. Snider remembers coming to Spokane by train, arriving on a fall night so cold they could see their breath in the air. They stayed at the Davenport for two weeks until his father found them a place to live.
“The ‘White Christmas’ song came out that year, and there was tons of snow,” he said.
Snider entered Spokane schools, graduating from Lewis and Clark High in 1952, and then from Washington State College. After serving a couple of years in the peacetime Army, he returned, married and began teaching at Rogers High and pursuing a career as an artist, working in pottery and then bronze sculpture.
After his father died in 1971, he and his mother began marking Pearl Harbor Day every year as a time of remembrance. His mother died in 1988.
He’s been back to Hawaii three times, but he eventually found that the people and the places he knew were no longer there.
“I drove all over that island. … It wasn’t the same,” he said. “I never liked Waikiki Beach. I never liked high-rise anything.”
And so today, while people remember Pearl Harbor in military terms, in political terms, in historical terms, Bob Snider will also remember it in intensely personal terms – the memory-spurring sensations that start small, but grow and grow over a life.
“I never forgot the smell of salt water in Hawaii,” he said.