Pearl Harbor Ghosts

Pearl Harbor Ghosts: The Legacy of December 7, 1941 (Ballantine, 2001)
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“Clarke’s ability to evoke the feel and mood of Hawaii then and now will remind readers of Jan Morris and Joan Didion.”

The Washington Post


A landmark book published to rave reviews a decade ago, Pearl Harbor Ghosts has now been updated to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the surprise attack that forever changed the course of history.

More Reviews below
Excerpt below

Book on Television: Pearl Harbor Ghosts was the basis for a two-hour prime time CBS documentary introduced by General Normal Schwartzkopf.

Full of gripping drama and vibrant details, here is the intimate human story of the events surrounding that fateful day of December 7, 1941–the glamorous tropical city that seemed too beautiful to suffer devastation . . . the stunned naval personnel whose lives would permanently be divided into before and after Pearl Harbor . . . the ordinary Honolulu residents who were tragically unprepared to be the first target in the Pacific war . . . the Japanese pilots who manned the squadron of deadly silver bombers . . . and the island’s community of Japanese-Americans whose lives would never be the same again.

Blending meticulous historic recreation with lively reporting, Clarke counterpoints the freeze-frame nightmare of the 1941 bombing with the disturbing realities of present-day Honolulu, where hundreds of veterans, both American and Japanese, converge each year to relive every hour of the attack. Wealthy Waikiki landowners and native Hawaiian farmers, admirals and nurses, Navy wives and government officials–all take their part in Clarke’s rich tapestry of memory and insight. In the end, Pearl Harbor emerges as a trauma that spread from Oahu to engulf the nation and the world–an event that continues to reverberate in the lives of all who experienced it.

More reviews of Pearl Harbor Ghosts

“Filled with fascinating stories told by ordinary people who lived through the extraordinary weekend of December 5 to 7, 1941.”

The New York Times Book Review

“An extremely sensitive book by a sensitive writer.”

Christian Science Monitor

“Thurston Clarke’s Pearl Harbor Ghosts stands apart from other 50th anniversary examinations of that tragic day.”

Chicago Tribune

“A penetrating and provocative study of the attack’s evolving impact on Japanese-American relations and on Hawaii itself over the past half-century. It is distinctly the most illuminating volume among the wave of books being launched…to coincide with the impending 50th anniversary.”

Chicago Sun-Times

“Unforgettable… Clarke is masterful in the personal realities… Woven into the dreamlike tapestry are sharp, provocative bits on contemporary Japanese-US realities… Powerful, compelling prose lays this ghost to rest with dignity and painstaking honesty.”



In 1941, Honolulu was a city where people advertised for a ‘Hawaiian yard boy who can sing, dance, and play the guitar,’ and taxi drivers used call boxes attached to palm trees, and you requested a favorite driver by name. It was a city where a siren ordered minors off the streets at eight o’clock, beachboys had names like Hankshaw, Steamboat, Panama, and Tough Bill, who played the ukulele and tucked hibiscus blossoms behind their ears, policemen wore leis and sat on high stools under umbrellas, waving at friends as they pulled ‘Stop’ and ‘Go’ levers, and Pete the ‘Hula Cop’ directed traffic with the arm motions of a hula dancer, and was honored by a downtown plaque thanking him for having ‘smiled his way into the hearts of the people.’ It was a city where the most serious civic nuisances were an absence of shade trees along Kalakaua Avenue and bad-mannered children on the trolley buses, politicians wore white suits and panama hats, and promised the moon in several languages, and hostesses descended from early missionaries used ti leaves as tablecloths and sang the doxology before dinner.

Trace the paths of the Japanese fighters and bombers over a map of Oahu and the island begins to resemble an insect caught in a dense spiderweb of lines and arrows, and you can appreciate how confusing the attack must have been for American forces on the ground. The most chaotic and damaging period was the first half hour, from 0755 until 0825, when more than twenty ships were attacked by 183 Japanese fighters and torpedo, dive-, and high bombers. This was when Oahu’s defenders suffered the heaviest material losses and casualties, when great battleships capsized and sank in flames and Japanese pilots destroyed or damaged most of the 188 Army and Navy planes lost on December 7.

On the night of December 7, the first night of a blackout and curfew that would last almost three years, civilians saw shells flashing like sheet lightning, and the dull red glow of burning battleships, projected onto the night sky. At midnight, they saw a rare lunar rainbow, which native Hawaiians believe symbolizes an imminent victory. All night, they felt the ground shaking from trucks trailering artillery pieces, and heard the rifle shots of nervous guards, the antiaircraft fire of panicky gunners, and the grinding gears of mortuary wagons transporting the dead to cemeteries in Nuuanu Valley.