Pearl Harbor survivor recounts tragic history
by Brooke Borba | Patterson Irrigator
Dec 04, 2013 | 1325 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Left, Charlie Sanpei, a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack, recounts the event to fellow patrons at the Hammon Senior Center earlier this year. Local historian, doctor and Patterson resident Ralph Busco not only found Sanpei's story intriguing, but unique considering his Japanese-American heritage.
Left, Charlie Sanpei, a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack, recounts the event to fellow patrons at the Hammon Senior Center earlier this year. Local historian, doctor and Patterson resident Ralph Busco not only found Sanpei's story intriguing, but unique considering his Japanese-American heritage.
Local Patterson resident and doctor Ralph A. Busco was granted a rare treat when he happened to meet 81-year-old Charlie Sanpei, a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack, at the Hammon Senior Center off west Las Palmas Avenue in Patterson.

Busco, an educational administrator, doctor and historian, regularly visits the center in an effort to meet local residents and share interesting stories. Little did he know that he would meet a man who was directly involved in one of the greatest tragic incidents and comebacks throughout American history to date.

“Pearl Harbor was an emotional time when Japan really slaughtered us,” Busco said. “It still gives you an eerie feeling. And here is (Sanpei), right in the middle of it all.”

Sanpei, a Japanese-American, felt prejudice from many Americans during the era of World War II, but didn’t let that stop him, or his family, from showing their patriotism.

Sanpei continues to live in Hawaii despite the terrible attachments connected by the wartime activity; he regularly visits his son in Patterson every year to reconnect during the holidays.

While visiting, Sanpei made his way to the Senior Center, where he met historian Busco. Off handedly, Sanpei mentioned the Japanese attack, which brought sorrow and destruction to the Hawaiian base on December 7, 1941. The firsthand experience garnered Busco’s attention immediately.


Sanpei, only 10-years-old at the time, was living with his father, a car mechanic, mother and siblings in a home in Pearl City.

On a Sunday morning at 7 a.m., Sanpei and his sister went to visit their local pastor at his home when all three witnessed low flying planes crossing overhead with the Japanese red insignia.

“I looked up and saw the pilot. He was so close; you could see the gun behind him. He waved to us and we waved back,” Sanpei said.

Sanpei thought something was amiss, but didn’t understand the implications of the planes low flight pattern, or what they symbolized at that time.

The local pastor told the children to come inside his home, and kept them from leaving, telling them it was the time for war.

“I didn’t know what war was,” Sanpei said. “‘War? What’s war?’ I said. I still didn’t really understand until later in life.”

After the planes had flown away from the pastor’s residential home, Sanpei and his sister raced home to their mother and little brother. Military personnel showed up shortly afterward and explained that the family needed to be evacuated.

The family refused to leave; they were waiting for their father to arrive, who was on his way home from the mechanic shop.

Once Sanpei’s father reached their home, the military took the family towards the cane fields in the mountains overlooking their residency. From there, the Sanpei family was able to watch the attacks from a distance.

“You could feel the vibrations, hear the boom,” Sanpei said. “Everything was being destroyed.”

At last, the end of the attack was near. At around 6 p.m., the Sanpei family was told by military personnel that they could not go back to their home in Pearl City.

“The military thought there was a chance they’d come back to kill us off,” Sanpei said. “We only had the clothes on our back.”


After a month of waiting, only two family members were allowed to go back to their home to retrieve their belongings. Sanpei and his father volunteered and found that their home was not affected by the bombings.

Regardless, Sanpei’s father decided to build a bomb shelter for the family, and forced them to sleep in the shelter for fear of air raids.

“It was scary living back there,” Sanpei said. “We didn’t know if the Japanese were going to come back and kill us.”

What made matters worse for the family was their nationality, which garnered hateful protests against their father’s business as a car mechanic.

The Japanese had considered them traitors, and other Americans considered them untrustworthy.

The Sanpei’s became a scapegoat for the attack, despite Sanpei’s father’s wish to be a full-fledged American.

“My father was angry with Japan,” Sanpei said. “He came to Hawaii when he was 16 to work in the fields. He learned to be a mechanic. He did away with his citizenship in Japan and became a naturalized citizen. My father would sing the Star-Spangled Banner all the time.”

Despite their wish to assimilate further into the community, Sanpei still faced discrimination in school.

“We hated that,” said Sanpei. “But what could we do? After the attack, my father made us do American citizenship classes and said we were not going to be Japanese citizens.”

As a young boy, Sanpei was still bewildered by the specifics of the Pearl Harbor attack. He didn’t know why Japan was considered America’s enemy, or why they would want to wreck havoc in Hawaii.

“I was confused,” said Sanpei. “All I did was play, go to school and eat meals. Why did Japan want to kill us?”


Although the Sanpei’s were exposed to hostile treatment, the family was never sent away to an internment camp, like other Japanese-Americans. Most Japanese-Americans lost their jobs, but Sanpei’s father was able to keep the family business afloat.

“Business was slow at first, but my father knew we had to earn their trust back. After a while, everyone began to overlook the fact that we were Japanese. They trusted my family again.”

Members of the military also grew to know and respect the family after setting up post on their property. Both parties were able to foster a meaningful relationship, which encouraged patriotism.

Although relationships were rekindled, the war waged on. Busco estimated that if America did not retaliate with their own atomic bombs, one to two million troops would have died in an effort to save American lives.

“I was 10-years-old when all this happened. It makes a great impact,” said Sanpei. “I will never forget it.”

Contact Brooke Borba at 892-6187, ext. 24, or

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