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Found: Identity of the Female Fire Fighters at Pearl Harbor

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Just last week we posted an article about this amazing picture of four women wielding a fire hose, understood for years to be a depiction of women firefighters rushing to the job during the attacks on Pearl Harbor seventy years ago this month. Their identities were unknown. Just last week, MSNBC decided that this was a mystery well worth solving, and solve it they have. The last surviving woman from this picture is the ninety-six-year-old Katherine Lowe; mother of eight and grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great-grandmother of too many for MSNBC to count; and she’s got a lot of revelatory things to say about the photo, its origins, and the place that she and the other women actually had in the war effort.

Ms. Lowe insisted on performing some hula for the photographer. How did anyone manage to find her? It took the work of another woman; librarian, novelist, blogger, and historian Dorothea “Dee” Buckingham. Buckingham has “written extensively about the lives of women during the war,” and according to MSNBC it took her only minutes to find the picture in the Hawaii War Records Depository, where it listed the names of the women pictured. “From left to right: Elizabeth Moku, Alice Cho, Katherine Lowe, and Hilda Van Gieson.” Here’s the library’s print:

There was even a second photo of the same women!

MSNBC was able to take it from there:

One of the public records services that we subscribe to, Accurint, includes an address for a Katherine Lowe in Hawaii, born in August 1915, which would have made her 26 at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack. The public records gave her address in Laie, about an hour’s drive from Honolulu, and gave us a cell phone number that turned out to belong to her daughter, Yvonne Hernandez. We e-mailed the daughter a copy of the photo.

“Yes, that’s my mother! And my Auntie Moku!” Hernandez said, referring to Elizabeth Moku, the woman at the nozzle of the fire hose. “I am overwhelmed. My mother never mentioned any of this to me. She’s shocked.”

The biggest revelation Lowe could offer for reporters was that the photos were not of fire fighters, nor were they taken on the day of the Pearl Harbor attacks. Lowe distinctly (as I imagine you would) remembers being on her way to Sunday church services when the bombings began, and simply went straight there, not knowing what else to do. At the time she and her best friend Elizabeth worked at the Dole pineapple factory (we assume they were canning pineapple, not manufacturing it), not as firefighters. After America entered the war, the two applied for the new jobs available to civilians at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard.

“We were rugged,” Lowe said. “We carried heavy stuff, oil drums, bags, anything that needed to be stored.”

Fires in the storage areas were common, and could be devastating, so “they trained us for firefighting.” She said she recalled at least one time when they put their skills to use at an actual fire, but she remembers it mostly for the recreation it provided. “It was a lot of fun. We’d shoot water at one another.”

Lowe says she doesn’t remember this picture being taken, but MSNBC’s best guess is that it was likely taken while the women were training with the hoses. How did the picture get it’s no more impressive but still embellished origin story? It appears that somewhere between being taken and being entered into the Getty Images database, this caption was attached by a writer with an imagination and flair for the dramatic: “On that fateful December 7th, 1941, these girls of Pearl Harbor helped extinguish the flames that were raging at the naval base. They were the first women defense workers of America.”

While Lowe and her friends weren’t firefighters on December 7th, they were a part of the war effort, and doing jobs otherwise available only to men. In fact, MSNBC’s research shows that the photos were taken by a Navy photographer, likely to publicize the role of women in the war. There were women serving in the military during the Pearl Harbor attacks. Nurse Annie G. Fox received a Purple Heart for her actions in the attack.

Seventy years later, how is Ms. Lowe doing?

She walks with a cane, and has to take her blood-pressure medicine, but she’s up at 4 a.m. to hitch a ride to breakfast with friends and then twice a week to her bowling league. She said her bowling average is “145, going down,” and she’s rolling a smaller ball these days, just 10 pounds.

I honestly didn’t expect to get such a wonderful story, if we got one at all, from the investigation into this photo.

(Pictures of Ms. Lowe by Marco Garcia for MSNBC.com, story via Jezebel.)

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