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Keolani Brewer of Missoula was too young to remember the Sunday in December 1941 when Japanese planes strafed the waterfront near her family’s home on Kauai. “As my mom got older and I talked to her more about it, I could see how traumatic it was,” Brewer said.

KIRA VERCRUYSSEN, Missoulian

The touchdown unscored. The island life unlived. The stunned families and fraternities of Montana.

Just a handful of Americans remain who survived the Japanese bombs and torpedoes that devastated the Oahu naval station at Pearl Harbor 75 years ago.

But for many others, including four Missoula residents, the memories of Dec. 7, 1941, and its aftermath remain vivid.

Bob Morrison played end for the Montana National Guard football team that trucked the 55 miles from Camp Murray to Chehalis, Washington, to play a game that Sunday.

People along the road waved as they went by, “but we didn’t make too much of it,” Morrison said last week in his Missoula apartment.

“At halftime we were behind by six points, but the second half started and we were driving toward a touchdown,” recalled Morrison, a strapping man who’ll turn 95 in February. “We were going to win this game.”

He figures his team from the 163rd Infantry Regiment was on the opponents’ 20-yard line when the game was suddenly halted.

“They didn’t tell us much,” Morrison said. “Just: The game is over, get on the truck. We got on the truck with our uniforms and everything else, and away we went.”

By nightfall Morrison, a 1940 graduate of Havre High School, was commanding a 20-man platoon from a duck hunter’s cabin, patrolling the Strait of Juan de Fuca for signs of a Japanese invasion of the West Coast. 

***

Lani Brewer was too young to understand the terrors of Pearl Harbor, though they occurred barely 100 miles away.

Indeed, she said, attacking Japanese planes peppered the waterfront of the island of Kauai, where 17-month-old Keolani lived with her parents Roy and Keo Burcham.

“They talked about it all the time,” Brewer said in her Farviews home on Missoula’s southeast side. “It was really one of those big events in their lives.”

Brewer was born in Honolulu, where her parents had moved in 1938 with friends from California. She was still a baby when the Burchams moved again, this time to the town of Lihue on Kauai's east shore.

The Japanese assault was launched from aircraft carriers to the north of Oahu.

“They didn’t attack Kauai very much because it was the island farthest away, but they did come by and strafe the waterfront, all the petroleum tanks and stuff,” Brewer said.

The lives of her family and the rest of some 36,000 others on the island – more than one-third of whom were Japanese – were changed instantly and forever.

Japanese community leaders on Kauai, already identified by the FBI, were hurriedly rounded up and detained in jails and a gym on the Lihue Plantation.

Roy Burcham, who taught Filipinos to sew and sold them Singer sewing machines, was ordered to stand guard at an area bridge – with a club.

“I don’t know what they thought he was going to do with a billy club,” Brewer mused.

Presently, the “haoles,” or white civilians like the Burchams, were hustled from the vulnerable island to Honolulu. They left most of their possessions behind.

Brewer remembers the “really awful” blackouts in the weeks and months after the attack. As war raged, those with children were urged to get to the U.S. mainland. The Burchams waited eight months before they found passage on a freighter to the West Coast.

“It took us 11 days because the ship zigzagged all the way back. We just didn’t know if the Japanese were going to come back,” Brewer said.

***

“The first report that I heard of significance was Clark Field being bombed in the Philippines,” Bill Jones recalled.

Hours after finishing with Pearl Harbor, Japanese war planes attacked the U.S. air base north of Manila, where it was Dec. 8 on the west side of the International Date Line.

Jones, a retired Missoula attorney, was 9 years old. He huddled with his parents and brother around the big Philco radio in the living room of their home on South Center Avenue in Miles City.

“I didn’t have any great geographic knowledge,” he said. “But one thing led to another and within the next hour or two, news started coming in that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. In other words, there was conflagration all over the Pacific Ocean.”

***

Joe Gans said he learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor midway down the stairs of the old Theta Chi fraternity house on University Avenue in Missoula.

“Somebody yelled and said what was happening,” recalled Gans, who lives in an independent living home in west Missoula. “We were very agitated. Nobody really knew what had happened.”

He was an undergraduate from Helena High, destined within the year to be on a battleship in the Pacific.

But on that Sunday at a frat house teeming with students of military age, agitation and uncertainty were in the air.

“Everybody was crowded around the radio listening, but nobody knew what it meant,” Gans said. “At that point it took a while for word to get across about how disastrous it was.”

***

Her family safely reached California after their flight from Kauai. Keolani Burcham grew up and became a nurse and nutritionist. She and her husband moved the family to Missoula in the mid-1980s when Bob Brewer became manager of the Champion International mill in Bonner.

Active in community events, the Brewers and their three children are seasoned overseas travelers and have opened their doors to a number of students from non-English speaking countries. Last year Lani Brewer traveled with a group of Missoulians to Myanmar to teach English.

The Brewers have vacationed in Kauai, and 10 years ago they paid an especially poignant visit with her mother and four generations of Burchams. Keo Burcham, who died last year at age 103, was well into her 90s at the time. In what her daughter described as a moving scene, she pointed out her old house and other personal landmarks to children, grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Because of the events 75 years ago Wednesday, an idyllic island life wasn’t in the cards for Lani Brewer’s family.

“It seems very real to me because my mom and dad always talked about it,” she said. “They lived on the islands and just loved it there.”

Roy Burcham died in 1983. As her mother grew older, Lani came to understand just how traumatic a day Dec. 7, 1941, was.

“She was really a strong person, didn’t ever get depressed or down,” Brewer said. “But it was a really horrific experience for her. All her life that was just a terrible, terrible memory.”

 ***

Bill Jones is 84 now. He went from Miles City to the University of Montana, edited the student newspaper and joined the ROTC there in the 1950s. He served a two-year hitch as an information officer at Malmstrom Air Force base in Great Falls and graduated from the UM law school. Jones went on to a 52-year career with the Missoula firm Garlington, Lohn and Robinson.

Jones recalled one particular day when he was 13. He was riding a horse-drawn binder in a wheat field in the Pine Hills outside of Miles City. He looked to his left and saw a puff of dust “way down across the prairie.”

As he watched that August day in 1945, the dust became a cloud kicked up by an approaching pickup truck. It was the day after the atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki.

“My mother was coming in from the home place to tell me the war was over,” Jones said.

 ***

After finishing classes at UM, Joe Gans became what he calls “a lowly ensign” in the Navy on the USS Washington. It was one of the few American battleships not stationed at Pearl Harbor on the day Gans got the news at his Phi Delta house in Missoula.

He spent three years in the Pacific on the Washington, and was bunking in the stateroom in 1944 when he heard a loud bump. Certain the ship had been struck by a torpedo, Gans said he and his shipmates jumped from their bunks.

“I told you we could take it,” he remembered saying.

But it wasn’t a torpedo. Running in the dark, another U.S. ship, the USS Indiana, collided with the Washington and took the bow off.

“We lost about six lieutenant commanders of high rank because their bunk was up there at the time,” Gans said, adding he never saw mention of the accident in the press.

“I think it’s something they didn’t want publicized,” he said.

After the war, Gans attended Stanford University on the GI bill. He spent most of a career in business in San Francisco, eventually taking a job in Helena to return to Montana before retirement.

***

Bob Morrison is surely one of the most decorated World War II veterans in Montana.

After months of patrolling the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Morrison left the infantry to take to the air, piloting B24s on 34 bombing missions throughout the Pacific. He compiled points enough to earn one of the first honorable discharges in 1945, shortly before the war in the Pacific was won. The war took his brother, a UM graduate like he became. Edward Morrison, four years older than Bob, was shot down in the same theater.

Morrison was awarded an Air Medal four times and the Distinguished Flying Cross twice, among other medals.

After a short career with the FBI on the east coast, he set up a law practice in his hometown of Havre. Morrison lived with wife Pat in “semi-retirement” in Whitefish and Kalispell for 22 years before they moved to The Springs in Missoula in 2013.

Morrison played one quarter of a Grizzly-Bobcat basketball game under Coach Jiggs Dahlberg in 1949 before a bout of malaria contracted during the war ended his collegiate career. He was an accomplished golfer and racquetball player in later years.

But Bob Morrison, war hero, never donned another football uniform after the infamous Sunday in Chehalis, Washington, when his team fell one war short of a touchdown.

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