Joe Murawski needed to get to church.

He had just gotten off work on a Sunday morning on the isle of Oahu, Hawaii.

The Niagara Falls native hadn’t slept the night before, robbed of sleep because of guard duty at the ammunitions depot.

Around 6 a.m., after a quick shower, the 19-year-old hitched a ride toward the Air Force barracks hoping to grab some breakfast.

The Army private first class, who enlisted just 11 months before, reached the first mess hall about 7 a.m. only to find out it had shut down five minutes earlier.

A sergeant there told him to try the wooden shanties across the airfield’s parade ground.

Murawski finally found food, and sat down with some other soldiers.

By now, it was close to 8 a.m. and he had planned on working his way toward a large barn nearby, which served as both a church and a movie theater for the troops.

With nothing but a fence separating Hickam Field from the U.S. base at Pearl Harbor, Murawski could see the battleships from where he stood.

Morning mass was set to begin in minutes.

And that’s when it started.

He saw a plane in the distance fly by and make a drop.

But he almost ignored it, since the Navy was always practicing maneuvers.

Then explosion after explosion rattled around him.

With enemy planes flying close to the tops of nearby buildings, he could see the red circles of the Japanese flag beneath the wings.

One of the Japanese pilots smiled as he flew by Murawski.

“By then, it was like a bees nest of planes,” he said.

None of the Americans at Pearl Harbor could understand how the Japanese had gotten so close.

The devastating scene should have been impossible, the soldiers had thought.

It was a surprise that had both shocked the troops and dragged a nation into a world war.

And it’s an experience Murawski recounted in the living room of his Town of Niagara home with ease 65 years later.

A few close calls

When the bombs began to drop, Murawski started to run.

Thus began the first of many criss-crosses he would make of Hickam that morning.

He didn’t have his helmet. He didn’t have his rifle.

That’s when he saw the barn-turned-church get pancaked with Japanese bombs.

“Good thing I stopped to eat, otherwise I would have been in that building,” he said.

Murawski and his fellow troops had been on alert the entire night before.

Around 2 a.m., another sergeant told Murawski the alarm had expired.

But this young soldier remained vigilant, even hours later during a surprise attack that changed American history.

He started running past some nearby barracks.

He saw a lot with a construction shed sitting on it. The lot was covered with dry, red clay.

Then something hit him in the back.

He hit the ground, tackled by another soldier he found laying beside him.

A Japanese plane was bearing down on the pair, firing at everything in its path.

“We looked like two sardines,” Murawski said.

Then, with their faces buried in the clay, the plane passed over them — its shots stopping two feet before them and starting again two feet after.

The pair headed for the construction building.

Soon six other soldiers packed the space.

Planes snarled overhead as Japanese bullets poked holes in the roof.

Some planes were just a few feet above the rooftops, Murawski said.

Daylight quickly darted through the bullet holes.

Murawski’s next move was an attempt to cut across an area near the end of the main runway.

As he evaded shrapnel laying every few feet around him, he spotted a half-dozen enemy planes headed right toward him.

To his surprise, they passed over the young soldier, instead attacking nearby transport planes typically used to get troops off the island.

“I thought they were going to blast me,” he said.

At this point, pieces of everything — buildings, bombs — were raining down like fireballs.

Murawski got back to his barracks, finally retrieving his helmet and rifle.

Everyone there had escaped serious injury, though its roof was painted in bullet holes, too.

The nearby ammunition depot remained undamaged.

One of Murawski’s commanding officers put him on a crew to start moving bombs from their location to U.S. planes.

As the crew got about half way across a dusty road in its flat-bed truck, the 20-millimeter cannon of a Japanese plane punctured the vehicle’s radiator.

Again, the young soldier avoided injury.

Looking back

By the time the two-hour attack was over, Murawski had successfully dodged numerous brushes with death.

It took a couple days for Murawski to find out his brother, stationed at Diamond Head, had survived.

It was a couple weeks before his parents back in the Falls found out their boys were all right.

All in all, he served four years and nine months in the Army.

He eventually came home to marry Albina, his wife of 60 years.

Jobs at various Falls factories, including 34 years at Hooker Chemical Co., were enough to put five of the couple’s six children through college.

Sending his children to school was important to him because he never had the chance to go, Albina said.

A long-time active member of Niagara Fire Co. No. 1 before it closed, a scanner still chimes fire calls into the Murawskis’ home.

“He doesn’t go,” wife Albina said, “but he thinks he can go.”

Trending Video

Recommended for you