Alas, their superiors disregarded the alarm they sounded. But Richard Schimmel saved the notes he took on the December day when their radar picked up the oncoming attack.
And now he’s recounted the tale for the Today show, which reported on Schimmel’s experiences in time for today’s 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Pearl Harbor Survivor Enlisted to Serve His Country and Find a Better Life
Schimmel was 18 when he signed up to join the Army. His family had struggled to eat during the Great Depression, and he had lived in nearly a dozen different homes by the time he graduated high school.
“Every time the rent came due, we moved,” he said.
Schimmel decided he wanted to see the world – and in particular, Hawaii, which is where he wound up after he enlisted. Before long, he and his colleagues were working with what was then a brand-new technology: radar, short for radio detection and ranging, which uses radio waves to find out the distance, angle and velocity of objects.
Schimmel was having a grand old time in paradise, making new friends and experimenting with technology they all barely understood. Then, on Dec. 7, 1941, everything changed. Schimmel’s friend saw something coming on the radar. But he didn’t know if it was friend or foe, or a glitch in the radar system.
Radar Operators’ Supervisor Told Them to Disregard Signals of Attack
“It comes down to expectations,” Dr. Rob Citino of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans told Today. “If you’re not expecting something, and then you have evidence that it’s happening, the first thing you say is, ‘Well, that can’t be!’ And that’s precisely what happened with our radar operators.”
Schimmel recalled that the lieutenant they alerted said, “Forget about it… Don’t worry about it.” So they forgot about it. At the time, the U.S. military was expecting a group of unarmed B-17 bombers from the mainland as opposed to an attack from the Japanese.
“Where we were, we were high,” Schimmel recalled. “I could see all of Pearl Harbor. We would see the planes flying. We would hear the ‘boom!’ And we could see the fire. They did a hell of a job, too. They knew what they were doing.”
Schimmel saved the note he wrote down that day – evidence that the radio operators had done their job, even though it didn’t stop the attack.
“We did our job,” Schimmel said. “We love our country. That’s what matters the most.”
Watch Schimmel recount the advance warning of the attack on Pearl Harbor here: