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Air attack hit home for Spotsylvania man

December 7, 2012 12:10 am


Donald Funai, 81, who is of Japanese descent, witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, while living in Hawaii. He later served in the U.S. Air Force and worked as an air-traffic controller. He now lives in Spotsylvania. lo120712Attack3.jpg

Donald Funai of Spotsylvania joined the U.S. Air Force in 1955, serving for 21 years. He flew missions in Vietnam. lo120712Attack2.jpg

Funai could hear the blasts and see smoke from the attack.


As Japanese warplanes bombed Pearl Harbor, among those witnessing the attack was 10-year-old Donald Funai.

Seventy-one years ago today, the son of Japanese-American parents had gathered with friends for an early-morning baseball game on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, not far from the harbor.

"Some older kids had gotten there first, so we couldn't play," said Funai, 81, now a retired Air Force major and former air-traffic controller, who lives in Spotsylvania County.

As Funai and his pals waited on the sideline on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, "We could hear a dull kind of thuds in the distance. The military was always having maneuvers," he recalled.

Two blocks from the field, the group climbed a hill where they could see Honolulu and the harbor, a few miles away.

"We could see all this black smoke. One kid said it was burning sugar cane--they did that prior to harvesting," Funai said. Another boy thought it was the military burning surplus oil.

They could make out what appeared to be fireworks exploding over the harbor, and watched a ship zigzagging between massive plumes of water.

They had no inkling that the fireworks were exploding anti-aircraft shells, or that the ship was dodging bombs.

One of his companions then spotted three planes speeding past Diamond Head toward Pearl Harbor.

"We were all airplane enthusiasts," Funai said. At first, the aircraft appeared to be American bombers on a training run.

"Then this kid says, 'Did you see that red dot on the wing?'" They knew it was the rising-sun symbol of the Japanese empire.

About that time, a policeman pulled up to the overlook, ordering the boys to go home. The magnitude of what they'd seen began to sink in, Funai said.

"We were thinking, Oh, s---! We're kids with Japanese ancestry"


Oahu was home to many Japanese immigrants who came to work in Hawaii's sugarcane and pineapple fields. Before the war, more than a third of Hawaii's population was of Japanese descent.

Funai's parents, Francis and Madelyn, were born in Hawaii. In 1941, Francis worked at a bank; Madelyn was at home with the children.

"We lived in a lower- to middle-income bracket rental home. It was fun," Funai recalled. "Next door to us was a Chinese family with about nine sons and daughters. Across the street was a [Japanese] guy who owned a jewelry store. Directly across was a native Hawaiian; next to him, another Japanese family."

There was no ethnic backlash in the days after the attack because the neighborhood in Palolo, a suburb of Honolulu, was made up mostly of Asians, he said.

Still, it was clear that dark days were ahead. Martial law was imposed, and some Japanese educators and Buddhist priests were detained, Funai said.

"They either shipped them out or locked them up."

Funai and his younger brother, Melvin, attended a Catholic boys' school.

"Several of us were going to Japanese-language school for about an hour during the week and a couple hours on Saturdays," Funai said.

It was canceled.

"I said, 'Hooray, no more language school!'" From a boy's reckoning, the decision meant more time to play. He added, "That's why I'm not bilingual to this day."

According to War Department records, a few hundred of Japanese heritage in Hawaii were placed in internment camps; about 400 were repatriated to Japan. By contrast, on the U.S. mainland, over 100,000 were detained in camps spread around the country.

One of them was Funai's uncle, who had just graduated from college in Seattle. The man and his wife were sent to an internment camp in Tule Lake, Calif.

In Hawaii, "There wasn't any racial discrimination; people weren't picking on us like they did on the West Coast," Funai said.


A few days after the attack, Funai remembers his father coming home in tears.

"He had tried to volunteer for the Army. A whole bunch of them [Japanese] went down to enlist."

At 38, his father was too old to serve. The recruiter told him to go home and care for his family.

"I'd say a majority supported the U.S., because we were all American citizens," Funai said.

Weeks later, the family went to the island's North Shore to visit his grandparents, passing Pearl Harbor on the way.

"You could see the wreckage of the [battleship] Arizona, with the superstructure bent over," he said.

The Funais managed better than many families, despite the hardships of war.

An aunt had married an Army master sergeant, who happened to be a cook at Schofield Barracks.

"So we never suffered from a lack of meat, butter, sugar, and all kinds of things people couldn't get because of rationing. He'd come over with all kinds of goodies," Funai said. And his father, who was a baseball coach at the boys' school, had an ample supply of spirits to share with friends and coaches.

Through the war years, Funai worked in the pineapple fields and a cannery. He was pumping gas at a service station in August 1945, when the war, and gas rationing, ended.

"Our tanks all ran dry," he said. Over in Honolulu, "GIs were riding up and down the street with the girls "


Funai enrolled in the Reserve Officer Training Corps at the University of Hawaii. He graduated in 1954 with a degree in marine zoology, but he chose to go to flight training.

Don Ho, the Hawaiian crooner, was one of the 12 men in Funai's ROTC class.

"We used to sing, drink and get in trouble together," Funai said.

Funai joined the Air Force in 1955, serving for 21 years. During that time, he made his first and only trip to Japan, assigned to Tachikawa Air Force base north of Tokyo.

His impression: "Good food, nice people, who were looking down on me because here's a Japanese boy who wasn't speaking Japanese."

Later, he served a year as a pilot in Vietnam. While in the military, Funai met and married his wife, Shirley, an Air Force nurse.

After leaving the service, he worked for the Federal Aviation Administration, doing air-traffic control and in-flight inspections.

Funai and his wife moved around the country during his stint with the FAA, eventually winding up in Spotsylvania in 1979. Shirley died nine years ago.

Funai now lives with his daughter, Stephanie, in a subdivision off State Route 3.

She heard about her father's brush with a pivotal moment in American history early on.

"For me, it was amazing that he was alive during those times, and saw this huge piece of history [that] I was studying in school," she said, adding that it is a story from a different perspective.

Funai says he thinks back on that day in 1941 when early December arrives.

"We had a bird's-eye view and I think about those guys in the military not realizing they were under attack, and trying to find weapons to shoot back."

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431

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