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Albany's Allen: 'I saw the Arizona burning'

Photo by Joe Bellacomo

Photo by Joe Bellacomo

ALBANY, Ga. -- When 6-year-old Juanita King heard the air raid sirens on Dec. 7, 1941, she remembers thinking, "Here we go again ... another drill."

But history tells us that the sirens on that particular Sunday morning were not part of any drill. Juanita, the military personnel and their families at or near the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the entire world would soon discover that the sirens that day signified a Japanese attack on American soil, an attack that meant Juanita wouldn't be seeing her dad -- Chief Machinist's Mate James Ulmah King -- again for a long while.

The sirens also meant the world would never be the same.

By the time those sirens were silent, the Pearl Naval fleet was in tatters. Among the damage: eight battle ships, three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship, a minelayer and 188 aircraft were either destroyed or put out of commission. More tragically, 2,402 Americans lost their lives and another 1,282 were injured.

Shortly after the relentless Japanese attack, which included 353 aircraft launched from six carriers, the United States officially declared itself at war with Japan, Germany and the Axis powers that had begun a campaign to systematically take over Europe, Asia and, eventually, the world.

The significance of that December morning attack was lost on Juanita King at the time. She had just turned 6, and she and her mother were in Hawaii with her dad, who was serving on the USS Dobbin. All she knew was that Ulmah King and his shipmates had scrambled out to sea to an undisclosed location, and she wouldn't see him again for the better part of a year.

"We'd had air raid warnings all week long, and when they went off on that day, I was on the porch with my cat, thinking it was another drill," said Juanita King Allen, who moved to Albany in the 1980s and has been living here since. "But I looked over my right shoulder, out toward the water, and I saw the (USS) Arizona burning. Then I looked up and saw a Japanese plane fly by."

That sight is etched in Allen's memory, a vision she'll never be able to shake.

"They were flying so low, so close to the ground, I actually looked into the cockpit and saw the pilot's face," she said. "But, you know, I wasn't really scared. We started hearing radio reports about not drinking the water because it could be poisoned, and we were told to get our gas masks ready.

"But when something like that is happening all of a sudden, you don't really have time for fear. It's there, there's really no time to think about it."

James Ulmah King and the Dobbin crew headed for an unspecified strategic location that Allen learned about through his letters home. In one, sent to Allen's grandmother, Mrs. J.R. King, in Nashville, Ga., on July 22, 1942, he explained the measures taken by the Navy to protect the remains of the Pearl fleet.

"Mother, I can't tell you where I am at, but I assure you I am getting along fine," Ulmah King wrote. "The people here are very friendly, in fact they remind me very much of the people at home. I haven't been ashore a time that I didn't get two or three invitations to lunch or dinner."

Allen said not knowing her father's whereabouts kept her mother busy trying to reassure the the young Allen that everything was OK.

"I ended up missing that school year," Allen said. "My mother figured I was scared, and I remember going to bed at night and the tracer shells being fired into the air, but I really don't remember being scared. She'd hold me in bed at night and teach me these little sayings to keep me occupied."

Allen's mother died five years after the Japanese attack, and the preteen eventually ended up in Japan with her father, who went to the Pacific islands as part of the post-World War II American occupation force. She graduated high school at an American school in Japan and eventually returned to Nashville with her father.

Allen attended the University of Georgia, taught school for a year, then decided she "wasn't enamored of staying in Nashville all her life" and followed in her father's footsteps. She enlisted in the Navy and completed Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I. After the required 16 months of training, Ensign Juanita King reported for duty at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois.

"There were 30 females in that class, and they definitely made it tough on us," Allen said. "They were much stricter there than they were at Georgia. But I got through it by telling myself 'I'll play their silly game one more night' every night."

Allen served in the Navy for two years, opting out because she and her then-husband decided they wanted children.

"A woman couldn't stay in the Navy if she planned to have children," Allen said. "It wasn't fair, but this was 1959. There were a lot of things that weren't fair."

Allen did have two children, and she lived in Milwaukee for 22 years before coming south to Albany, where she'd been buying real estate over the years. Today, at a very young 75, she still manages that property.

She also manages her 12 great danes: parents Leah and King and the 10 6-month-old puppies that all came from the same litter and are already better than 100 pounds each.

"I just couldn't stand to think of someone else raising them and not taking care of them like I do," Allen said of the pups, whose names are the Japanese words for the numbers 1 through 10. She points to a sign on the side of her Ninth Avenue home that reads: "My goal in life is to be the kind of person my dog thinks I am."

"That's what I do now," she says with a smile.

Since she was present for the historic Pearl Harbor attack 69 years ago today, it would seem natural that Allen would become an expert on the facts and figures of that attack. But she says she's never been interested.

"I was there; that's about it," she said. "I haven't had any real interest in finding out more about that day. What I remember most is it took my dad away, and I didn't see him for a long time.

"It also helped me realize that no one wins a war. When you look at the money spent and especially the lives lost, everything would be so much better if we just stayed out."