Pearl Harbor’s youngest fighter

Atlanta man recalls attack that spurred America's entry into WWII

The noise woke him. Airplanes, so many airplanes that the air vibrated, the house shook. Bobby stood in his bed; from there, he had a good view of the harbor, three blocks away. Already, smoke billowed skyward. It wasn’t even 8 o’clock.

The planes passed over his house, snarling. Each bore a red circle on the wings and fuselage — the symbol, he’d soon learn, of the Empire of the Rising Sun.

Bobby jumped out of bed and ran down the hall to his dad’s and stepmom’s bedroom. Robert Kushner Sr. had been at the officer’s club the night before, and was deep in slumber when his son shook him. His father stumbled out of bed.

The noise was louder now. The elder Kushner walked into the bathroom, looked out the window. He swore.

“Those are Japs!” he yelled.

The rest of the house was awake by then. Everyone came downstairs and stood in the kitchen, listening to the roar and boom, not knowing if they should run or stay put.

A soldier came to their door, asking if anyone had been injured. He’d been rousted to duty so quickly that the guy didn’t even have a helmet. Bobby’s parents rummaged around and gave the man Bobby’s helmet, a version of the doughboy headgear U.S. troops wore in World War I. Bobby fumed, but said nothing. He’d have to fight without it.

As his family watched the salvos of another world war unfold outside their Honolulu home, Bobby slipped away. He entered his grandfather’s bedroom and opened the closet door. His hand wrapped around a barrel.

No one noticed as he stepped outside, where airplanes filled the sky.

Bobby Kushner, 7, raised his Red Ryder BB gun and fired.

That was 72 years ago today. On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan attacked the U.S. military installation at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where the Kushners and other Americans lived.

The attack came in two waves, beginning at 7:55 a.m. Japanese warplanes from offshore carriers bombed the harbor, where American ships were moored. They also hit Hickam Field, a U.S. Army air base.

The attack claimed the lives of 2,335 U.S. servicemen, plus those of 68 civilians. An additional 1,143 servicemen were wounded, as well as 35 civilians. It was over before noon.

The events at a military base half a world away had profound implications in this nation and elsewhere. A day after the attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called Dec. 7 a “date which will live in infamy.” He asked Congress to go to war, and Congress agreed. For America, a war in far-away Europe had become local, personal. We were in World War II.

Now, the events of a lifetime ago seem far removed. The ranks of World War II veterans grow thinner every day. Of the 16.1 million Americans who served in that war, about 1.4 million remain. An estimated 30,000 live in Georgia. The Department of Defense figures that about 700 die every day.

Still, memories from Pearl Harbor Day live on.

A torn flag

The noise was even louder outside, if that was possible. Bobby struggled with his gun, which his grandfather had brought from the states earlier that year. Together, he and the old man had shot at bottles and other debris that floated in the harbor’s rocky coves, perfecting his aim. Now, on a Sunday morning, play time was over.

He placed the gun's wooden stock on the ground, between his feet. He cocked the lever, placing a BB in the chamber. Bobby looked at the sky, found a passing plane. He could see its pilot. Bap! He sent the BB on its deadly mission. Bobby repeated the process — stock on the ground, cock, aim, bap! He stood outside, shooting at the sky, until his grandfather saw him. The old man reached out and grabbed the boy. "You could get killed!" his grandfather yelled. He dragged Bobby inside.

The old man cooled off. He looked at the Red Ryder, then at his grandson. “How’d you do?” he asked Bobby.

“I think I shot down five planes,” the boy replied.

A soldier came to their house and asked everyone to evacuate. Bobby’s father, an Army dentist, was needed elsewhere. The rest of the Kushners boarded a bus headed to downtown Honolulu. The boy looked out the bus window, taking it all in: smoke, still heavy in the Pacific air; the base theater, where he’d been the night before, reduced to a few timbers; and an American flag, torn and bullet-riddled — still flying, too.

For the Kushners, the attack on Pearl Harbor signaled the end of a Pacific adventure. They returned to the states in a convoy, fearful that Japanese submarines might be tailing them. Robert Kushner Sr. went on to serve in Europe, returning at war’s end.

Bobby Jr., born in Atlanta, grew up in Danville, Va., but eventually came back to Atlanta after meeting and marrying a local girl, Brenda Meltz. They had three sons. Kushner is 79 now, a retired radiologist who lives in Buckhead. Most folks call him Robert.

On Dec. 7, he always remembers — the noise, the airplanes, the business end of his Red Ryder zeroing in on a Japanese war plane.

“I wanted to shoot them down,” he said. “I knew who they were and what they were doing. I was doing my job.”