Article: Remembering Pearl Harbor – Geneva woman tells her story

• Originally published in the Kane County Chronicle on Dec. 8, 2008

Six-year-old Jane Santana was excited. She was going to Sunday School for the first time in Hawaii. She had on her best outfit and a new pair of shoes. Her father was still in bed reading the funnies while she waited impatiently at the window for her family to get ready.

Then the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. It was Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941.

Santana, 73, of Geneva, remembers standing in her Sunday best and watching the anti-aircraft fire.

“I was looking out the window and saw the oil tanks burning down the hill,” Santana said. “My family later told me that I said, ‘It looks like a war.’ ”

It wasn’t yet, but it was about to be. Pearl Harbor was the site of a surprise attack by the Japanese, which led directly to the United States joining World War II. About 2,400 Americans were killed, and more than 1,200 were wounded in the bombardment.

Santana’s father, Clarence Otto Phillabaum, was stationed at Fort Shafter near Pearl Harbor. He was a mess sergeant at Tripler General Hospital.

Soon after the attack began, a bomb landed in Phillabaum’s backyard, but it didn’t explode.

“When that happened,” Santana said, “my dad went, ‘Whoop!,” got dressed and took off to where he was supposed to be.”

It was the last time she would remember seeing him until the end of the war. Her father later was sent to the South Pacific and to the European Theater before returning home.

“He never talked about the war with me,” Santana said. “I wish I knew then what I knew now. I would have asked questions.”

For Santana and her brother, 13-year-old Jack Otto Phillabaum, though, it was the start of an adventure. The two of them and her brother’s friend went out back to check out the bomb that had landed in the backyard and see what was happening.

“A piece of shrapnel came down and just missed [my brother’s] arm,” Santana said. “They went and picked it up and it was way hot. We were too young and stupid to know any better.”

Her brother, who now lives in western North Carolina, agrees.

“I thought it was really quite the adventure, being 13 years old,” Phillabaum said. “Nowadays it would scare me to death.”

Later in the day, military police escorted Santana, Phillabaum and their stepmother to a communications tunnel, where they spent the next couple of days hiding from any possible Japanese paratroopers.

They were well-fed, but couldn’t drink the water because of poisoning fears. They slept two to a cot and were able to listen by loudspeaker to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous speech in which he referred to Dec. 7 as “a date which will live in infamy.”

“Even as young I was,” Santana said, “I remember how quiet it was [in the tunnel].”

After they were allowed to leave the tunnel, they stayed in Hawaii for eight more months, having to keep mattresses on the floor, the windows covered up and cellophane over their flashlights to deaden the light until they were put on a troop ship in July back to the mainland, where they stayed in San Francisco until the end of the war.

And while Santana didn’t fight in the war, she still had a story to tell, which teachers asked her to repeat every time she changed schools.

“Every time we moved, they would ask me to get up and tell the class,” she said. “So I would tell the story, and because of that it was always in my mind. But when I was 12 or 13, my attitude changed. I was like, whoa, that was scary stuff. Before that it wasn’t a big deal. When you’re that young, you’re not afraid of anything because you don’t know any better.”

Despite her attitude change, she continues to tell the story.

“All stories about Pearl Harbor start the same way,” Santana said. “It was early Sunday morning. Then you fill in that dotted line.”

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