SANTA CRUZ — When the bombs started falling on Pearl Harbor 73 years ago, Arlene Joy Keck, ran to the ironing board to make sure her husband’s Navy whites were pressed.
They had been in bed just before 8 a.m. when the first bombs fell on U.S. ships parked in the harbor. It was Sunday.
Every year, on the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Keck, 95, remembers watching her husband leave the house that morning not knowing when she would see him again.
“We woke up to thundering sounds of explosion,” the Santa Cruz resident said. “People were at our door yelling, “Turn on the radio! Return to your stations!”
The 19-year-old newlywed, had sprinkled her husband’s uniform the night before.
“I ran to the ironing board so he would have something to wear,” she said.
The Navy wives in the neighborhood gathered in a single home listening to the radio. She realized later that she’d burned her arm on the iron.
“We were scared,” Keck said, remembering how she went outside at one point and a big piece of metal shrapnel fell at her feet. She thought it was from a bomb that had hit a neighborhood grocery store.
One night the women listened for hours to hundreds of U.S. tanks thundering down Beretania Street. They peeked through the windows covered with sheets and blankets. They ate whatever was in the cabinets. They waited to hear what had become of their husbands. Days passed. They heard no news of them, just deep silence punctuated by the roar of planes and other sounds of war preparations outside.
Days earlier, she’d been swimming and body surfing in the big waves with her dog Queenie. At the time of the attack, her husband, Ernest T. Keck, then 24, was a commissary steward. He ordered supplies for his ship and was assigned to the hospital.
One by one, a husband would return, muddy from fighting fires. It was a week before Keck’s husband returned, for just a few hours. He had been working in the morgue stacking bodies and building burn beds, a wooden cradle for people who were too badly burned to touch the sheets of a bed.
“He was shocked with what he had to do,” Keck said. “He never spoke about it again.”
In the following six months, Keck saw her husband little. They all waited, wondering what would happen next. Military wives were given gas masks and they carried them when they left the house. The weather was beautiful.
“We didn’t know if the Japanese were coming back.”
In May, Keck was evacuated along with other civilians and returned to the states on a convoy of ships. She was pregnant when she arrived in the San Francisco Bay. American Red Cross workers met them and helped them find lodging for the night. Every siren or sound of a plane overhead frightened her.
“There was patriotism and everybody helped each other at that time,” she said.
Soon she was on a bus heading home to live with her grandparents in a small town in Washington. It would be four years before she saw her husband again.
“Every single day I didn’t know if he was going to be killed or not over there. Every soldier’s wife is waiting for her husband while he’s fighting a war.” There are people, she said, who suffered a lot more than she did. She went to work in a hardware store to keep busy. Ernest Keck wrote her every day and she wrote back. Sometimes his letters arrived in bundles.”
When Keck returned to Hawaii in 1945, she brought her 4-year-old daughter. Their second daughter, Kathy Ashworth, who lives in Santa Cruz, said those years apart created an unusually close attachment. Ernest Keck served 20 years in the Navy. He died in 2003 at the age of 85.
“They were hand-holding lovers for their whole life,” Ashworth said. “Mom wasn’t going to let him go.”