[Various]: [ca. 1940s]. Thirteen brown paper leaves, loose from a presumably perished scrapbook, holding 57 black and white silver print photographs and dozens of ephemeral articles (clippings, postcards, documents, etc.) tape-mounted to rectos and versos. Prints ranging in size from approximately 1.5” square to approximately 8” x 10” (42 of the 57 photos approximately 1.5” square contact prints). [WITH] Two ALS totaling approximately 650 words. Letters good to very good. [WITH] About 35 pieces of loose ephemera: military correspondence, personal clippings and photographs, etc... Scrapbook pages worn, flaking at edges, loose contents often with tape remnants or residue from previous mounting. Contents overall about good. Pearl Harbor letter very good with folds from mailing, light toning, and a small chip from right margin. Item #19884
A small archive of World War II service and personal materials belonging to a Gerald Maynard Watkins of Memphis, Tennessee, highlighted by a monumental Pearl Harbor eyewitness letter written by Watkins to his mother less than 2 weeks after the Japanese attack.
Watkins was stationed at the Kanehoe Naval Air Station on the East side of the island of O’ahu, site of the first Japanese attack carried out just minutes prior to Pearl Harbor (approximately 30 miles to the West). His approximately 575 word letter of December 20, 1941, describes the surprise onslaught in vivid and revealing detail (exceprt):
"Then it happened. Never til my dying day will I forget. Bombers. They came from nowhere – Seemed to just be there. I looked up just in time to see them drop their eggs. For one startling second the world stood still as I followed the bombs line of drop with my eyes. I couldn’t help it. Fascinated by it all I watched until thy hit. That broke the spell. Courage – Every man there was a hero.
I rushed over to the hangar after the debris had settled. The first person I saw was Lawrence. He was just lying there kind of white looking and awful still. My throat tightened until it was hard to swallow. I knew he was dead."
This remarkable eyewitness account, one of the best pieces of World War II correspondence we’ve seen, is certainly the highlight of the group and its remaining contents are largely typical of World War II-era scrapbooks and archival material, with several dozen photographs of his later service in the War, many from Canton Island airfield in the Pacific with the decorated Patrol Bombing Squadron VPB-52. The balance of contents consist of personal clippings, marriage photographs, 3 pages seeming to be the fitful beginnings of an attempt at an early draft of a memoir of his Pearl Harbor Day experience, and a second wartime ALS, written on Christmas Eve, 1941 in which he follows up his December 7 experience with a report on a mild injury he suffered during the attack: “Now that I am well and health once more I can tell you this. I had a very small piece of shrapnel from one of the bombs that were dropped here hit me in the shoulder. I didn’t even have to go to bed. I feel like a veteran now.”
Watkins left the Navy in 1946, after six years of service and went on to a career as a commercial airline pilot. His 2006 obituary notes he entered the University of Miami Law School at 67 years old, passing the Florida Bar at 70 to become a practicing lawyer in retirement.
A handful of primary written accounts of the Pearl Harbor attack are known, notably the diary of George Macartney Hunter, whose family privately holds the manuscript but have made it available in multiple venues, including for use in the 2003 PBS documentary THE PERILOUS FIGHT. The offering of similar materials in commerce appears to be rare, with a significantly less impressive letter by a civilian witness to Pearl Harbor several miles from the battle itself making approximately $1200 (nearly tripling its high estimate) at a small regional auction in 2011.
A rare, thoughtful, and exceptionally revealing participant account, with important supporting documentation lending additional context, of arguably the defining event of the 20th century.