BEMIDJI, Minn. — “December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy,” said President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in what was perhaps one of the most historic radio addresses of all time, referring to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Naval Station in Hawaii.
It is a date that has lived forever in the memory of Thomas Gilmore.
Gilmore was a boy of 10, living at Pearl Harbor before, during and after that fateful day, a day that has continued to influence a life of service.
He was born to Forrest and Thora Gilmore in Blackduck, Minn., on Aug. 3, 1931, in the house of Mrs. Vikene, the local midwife. The little house stood for decades in Blackduck on the site currently owned by the school. It’s where the Blackduck High School building trades class now builds a house every year. The Gilmore family property in Hines, Minn., was home — and remained so — when they moved to Hawaii in 1940.
Now 89 years old on that infamous anniversary, Gilmore took time to share his memories.
Forrest Gilmore Sr. and his son, Forrest Jr., were hired as civilian machinists for the United States Navy at Pearl Harbor in 1939, and when the Navy built a housing area just outside the Naval base fence for families, Forrest Sr. returned to move his wife, Thora, and the younger children Tom and Gloria to live with them in Hawaii.
“And that’s where we were living when the attack came,” Thomas Gilmore said. “We’d been there just over a year, I think, when it happened. It was about 7 in the morning and my sister and I were outside playing. When the attack occurred we could see it and hear it. Everyone was out in the street watching. We didn’t know what was happening, it could have been a mock war exercise, we didn’t know if it was a real attack. But sometime in the morning, a vehicle came through the housing area and told all the workers to report to their positions.
"We kissed them goodbye, and that was the last we saw of my father and brother for a couple of days. We didn’t know what was happening with them and they didn’t even know where we were. Later, in the afternoon on Dec. 7, another vehicle came into the housing area. There was a loudspeaker on it and told us that buses would be taking us up into the mountains where it would be safer. It still seemed unreal, but my mother and sister and I spent two nights at King Kamehameha College in the mountains.”
Gilmore was still not clear about what was happening at Pearl Harbor, but as the buses moved away from the civilian housing area and up the mountains that all changed.
“We saw a couple of planes go down in flames and I could see the artillery flack in the air,” Gilmore said. “Then we knew it was real. I could see the Japanese planes going over with the big horizon sun on the wing tips and the huge torpedoes they were carrying underneath. I can remember all that stuff pretty vividly.”
After a couple of days, Tom, Flora and Gloria returned to their house from their mountain sanctuary to find little damage to the houses themselves, except for one exceptional near catastrophe.
“I have a bullet that hit our house,” Gilmore said, “even though there was very little damage done to the housing area because the Japanese fighters concentrated their attack on Pearl Harbor proper. But the one big bullet hole in the house was from a larger than 50 caliber unidentifiable round that hit inches from our gas meter.
“We stayed at Pearl Harbor for almost another year,” he added. “As kids, we just went on with our normal routine. We played and swam in the ocean. We rode the sugar cane trains up into the field and ate sugar cane right out of the fields. But we were also issued gas masks that we were ordered to carry on us 24/7. I still have mine.
"In the aftermath of the attack, the Navy built a bomb shelter in our backyard and the government put up blimps anchored with cables that would cause any aircraft coming into the area to avoid hitting the housing area. There were times when there were air raid alerts. At night we would see the search lights up in the air. We had nighttime blackouts — the entire island was on blackout and we all had to put something over our windows. As a kid, I remember selling cardboard for blackout materials. There were inspectors that came through at night and if they could see any light they would go to your electrical box outside your house and turn your power off, so folks were pretty careful about the blackouts.”
Late in 1942, the entire Gilmore family boarded the SS Matsonia to leave Hawaii. The ship had been a transport vessel for the Navy in World War I.
“It took five days to get from the mainland to Pearl Harbor,” Gilmore said, “and seven to make the return trip as the Matsonia and Naval support ship zig-zagged throughout the voyage to avoid detection by aircraft and submarine.”
The Gilmores moved back to Hines, “right here on the same 40 acres where I was born and raised 89 years ago and still live on today,” Tom said. “I lived there until 1953, when the draft board was breathing down my neck and I wanted to get into a unit of my choosing. So I went to the recruitment center and enlisted.”
Tom served three years on active duty and another 35 years in the Army Reserve.
He was initially assigned to the Army’s 35th Quartermaster Corps, and later transferred to the Mountain and Cold Weather Training Command based in Colorado. He spent two winters at Camp Hale, 110 miles up in the mountains, a substation of Fort Carson. Troops at Camp Hale lived in arched huts with wooden floors and frames, stretched with an insulated canvas cover. The huts slept 10-12 men each.
“We had to turn the heat off at night at 10 or sooner for safety because the oil heaters couldn’t go unmanned through the night,” Gilmore said. “In the morning our boots would be frozen to the floor. Temperatures would drop to the single digits at night, and one year we got 110 inches of snow two weeks before Christmas.”
Gilmore returned to active duty for six weeks in January and February of 1975 for ski training in Alaska with the Infantry.
“It really corresponded nicely with the cold weather and mountain training that I had, and I even met some fellas who were up there in the unit that was training us that I had been with in Fort Carson all those years earlier. I graduated second in the class; at that time the Reserve Unit was doing a lot of winter training at Fort Riley, so I became a ski instructor when we went to winter camp.”
In retirement, Gilmore renewed an old interest in ham radio and was licensed with the Paul Bunyan Radio Club 18 years ago. Since then his wife Shirley has joined him as a licensed operator. It was a combination of Gilmore's ham radio experience and his work as a map-reading instructor in the Army that led to an adventure 16 years ago when he was hired by the National Park Service for a short fire lookout stint at Yellowstone National Park.
“It was supposed to be a volunteer deal,” he said, “but when they saw my experience they insisted on paying me $11.40 an hour. Shirley came along for about nine days and I stayed for 42 days at Mount Washburn in Wyoming at an elevation of 10,243 feet.
"It was also a tourist spot so the first floor of the building I was in was a visitor center looking out over the Caldera of the Yellowstone Volcano, the second story held an observation deck, and the third held a 16-by-16-foot cage with 360 degrees of glass where Shirley and I stayed with the fire finder up on the mountaintop.
"Some people came a very long way and hiked miles to get to that spot, so when there were tourists from places like Great Britain and Australia I’d take them all the way up to the top to see the view from my quarters. That area is usually parched as a tinderbox, but that season the countryside was nice and green all season and I didn’t report a single fire.”
Gilmore’s service at Mount Washburn ended with two natural wonders: First the Perseids meteor shower which happens only once a year in August, and the second an ice storm.
“My daughter Tamara spent the last few nights there with me and just lying in her bed looking out the windows she counted at least 41 shooting stars,” Gilmore said. “Honestly, I didn’t really have any desire to come down. I liked it there. But then right after I moved out on Aug. 14, a big ice storm hit. They said the icicles were sticking straight out, horizontal from the building. They had to close it down and get the guy who replaced me down off the mountain.”
Gilmore is a member of the American Legion Post 372 in Blackduck and has served in its Color Guard and Honor Guard over the years. He is a member of the Disabled American Vets, the Blackduck Area Senior Citizens Center, attends services at the First Presbyterian Church in Blackduck and plays harmonica for special music at church and at the Good Samaritan Center. He and Shirley still live in his childhood home and are active in the life of their community.
FDR ended his Declaration of War with Japan by saying, “With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph — so help us God.” Americans embraced that determination and will to triumph, and while only a child at Pearl Harbor, one could say that Tom Gilmore’s life of determination and service really began on that day as well, with his patriotism and belief in striving for the triumph of the country he loves and continues to serve to this day.
A submitted video about Tom Gilmore can be viewed below courtesy of David Quam of Bemidji: