Seventy-eight years ago today, Lydia “Diane” Grant woke to the sound of a machine gun bullet smashing the wall above her bed. But disturbed sleep was the most minor casualty that day.
The Japanese were attacking Pearl Harbor.
The long-time Baton Rouge resident, then the 14-year-old stepdaughter of a naval officer, witnessed the event that thrust the United States into World War II. It took a few moments to realize what was going on. Aircraft skimmed the tops of the palm trees of her Navy Yard home.
“I looked out the window, and there were a lot of planes going over with the rising sun (symbol),” she said. “I said, ‘That’s really realistic, isn’t it?’ I thought we were having maneuvers. So, dumb me, I got out on the roof of the house — it was a split level — in my nightgown and was just watching the show.
“All of a sudden, my mother called me from next door. She was having coffee. She said, ‘For God’s sake, stay in the house! It’s the Japanese!’”
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Sailors on leave scurried to get back to their ships, sometimes jumping into hedges to escape the machine gun fire from enemy fighter planes.
“My Japanese maid kept crying, saying, ‘I wish I was Irish,’” Grant said. “She and I went from my house over to the neighbor’s where she was having coffee. I looked over in the dog pen, because we had three dogs in the dog pen, and the bullets were going all around us but never hit us. We were under a great big tree, and it sheltered us.”
The bombardment, launched from aircraft carriers north of the Hawaiian Islands, caught American defenders utterly by surprise. The bombers and torpedo planes sank four battleships, damaged four more, sank or damaged eight other ships, destroyed 188 aircraft and killed 2,403 Americans.
Had the attack occurred later in the day, Grant likely would have been among the slain.
Capt. Franklin Van Valkenburgh, commander of battleship USS Arizona, had been her stepfather’s roommate at the U.S. Naval Academy. She called him “Uncle Van,” and he had invited her to bring friends aboard the ship at 3 p.m. that day. She still has the hand-written invitation on USS Arizona stationery.
“We were having lunch in the captain’s quarters and we were going to watch a movie on the ship,” Grant said. “You could not get to Ford Island except by dinghy, and Capt. Van Valkenburgh was sending one.”
That dinghy, of course, was never dispatched. About 8 a.m. Hawaii time, the attack began, and a bomb set off the Arizona’s forward ammunition magazine, igniting a huge explosion that killed 1,177 aboard, including Van Valkenburgh. That night, from her blacked-out home, Grant watched the Arizona burn.
The family moved in with a friend in a neighborhood farther from the harbor. Her stepfather, Capt. Claude Gillette, was manager of Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard responsible for fleet repairs in Hawaii. Trenches were dug as bomb shelters. The family was issued gas masks.
Fearing a Japanese invasion, Grant and her mother, Lydia, and younger brother, Tom, evacuated aboard a ship taking wounded to mainland hospitals. Rooms designed to hold two people housed five, Grant said. Everyone aboard had to wear life preservers at all times.
“That inhibited me a little bit,” she said. “Of course, as a young girl, I had my eye on a guy who was going to be a midshipman at Annapolis. So, we came back to the (recreation) room, and he was going to kiss me good night, but we had all these life preservers, and we had to lean over that. Just then the steward came up. I didn’t get away with it.”
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They went to her mother’s home in Bath, Maine, and eventually were reunited with her stepfather when he was put in charge of ship repairs in Bremerton, Washington. She married Ed Grant, a B-17 pilot in Europe during the war, who founded Grant Chemical Corp. and lived in Baton Rouge. Ed Grant died in 2013.
Diane Grant, 92, visited Hawaii in 2001 and made a trip to the Navy Yard, bringing along the I.D. card she had as a young teen. It lists her by her given name, Lydia; a relative gave her the nickname Diane, which she has gone by ever since.
“He said, ‘I.D., please,’ at the gate,” Grant said. “So, I gave him that pass. Then, they called everybody over.”
As youngsters, they were forbidden from speaking French at school. As adults, those south Louisiana children went on to help win World War II.…