On the night before the day of infamy, 10-year-old Patsy Campbell was at Bloch Arena in Pearl Harbor for a semifinal round of the battle of music between the bands from the Navy’s big ships.
“All the kids went,” Patsy recalls. “It was good swing music. They were wonderful.”
The program for Dec. 6, 1941, included a jitterbug contest, and the emcee saw little Patsy among the other youngsters gathered in front of the musicians.
“He just knew with me tapping my feet on the floor that I could dance,” Patsy recalls.
The emcee, Joe Fischer, hoisted her up.
“He just asked, ‘Does anybody want to dance with this little girl? She can dance!’” Patsy remembers.
Unbeknownst to Patsy, her father, Navy chief radioman Edward Campbell, went up to a sailor in the bleachers, saying that his daughter might be very young, but she could really dance. She only knew that the sailor materialized beside her and volunteered.
As the music started up, Patsy proved the emcee and her father right. She and her sailor jitterbugged through three numbers on a floor crowded with 30 or more other couples.
“I was so happy to be dancing,” Patsy recalls. “I loved to dance.”
During an intermission, some older girls came over with tips that Patsy and the sailor put to good use during the final three numbers. The two were declared the winners and awarded twin trophies with identical inscriptions.
The winners then parted, with Patsy heading home to the new Navy family quarters two blocks from the main gate to Pearl Harbor and across the street from Hickam airfield. She did not know even her partner’s name.
“I didn’t know a thing about him,” Patsy says. “He went his way. I ran home with my trophy, telling my mom, ‘Look! I won! I won! I won!’”
The next day was Sunday, and Patsy was the only one in the family awake when the drone of engines approached.
“I am an early riser to this day,” she says.
She thought it must be American planes coming in to Hickam field, and she ran outside to wave as she always did.
“I didn’t know they were not our planes,” she recalls. “I only knew there were more planes than I had ever seen before.”
A neighbor called to her, telling her to go in, wake her father, and tell him to turn on the radio.
“I did and ran back outside to start waving at the planes again,” she says. “Our neighbor told me to lie down on the grass. I did, but I didn’t know why, until he told me they were Japanese and not our planes, and he didn’t want me to get shot.”
Her father emerged and hurried off on foot to report for duty. Her mother took Patsy, her 14-year-old brother, and the family dog to join the neighbors next door. They gazed out one window to see Hickam field being strafed and another window to see Pearl Harbor being bombed.
“The planes were so low we could see the pilots,” Patsy says.
The radio was on.
“The announcer kept repeating, ‘Oahu is being attacked by the Japanese,’” Patsy recalls. “And then they played the national anthem.”
As “The Star-Spangled Banner” crackled through the sounds of the attack, Patsy saw her mother begin to cry.
“If my mother is crying, there is something bad that is going to happen,” Patsy says. “Mother’s don’t cry. Especially military mothers.”
In the immediate aftermath, her mother administered first aid to some soldiers who had suffered minor wounds. Patsy’s family and the neighbors made egg sandwiches and coffee for the guards who were posted in anticipation of an invasion.
“We did anything we could to help,” Patsy says.
An absolute blackout was imposed that night, with a warning that any lights would be shot out. Patsy’s family remained with the neighbors and built a makeshift shelter by turning over furniture in the front room.
“That night was the longest, sleepless night I can remember ... waiting for the next attack,” Patsy says. “Tracer bullets were being fired all night. Whenever we heard shots or noises, all of us, the two families and two dogs, ran downstairs and got under our furniture shelter.”
The next morning, smoke was still rising from the USS Arizona. The 1,177 sailors who had died aboard the battleship included all 21 members of its band, which had won the first semifinal of the battle of music on Nov. 22 and had been due to play in the final on Dec. 20. They all had attended the concert the night before to listen to the competition, a night that now seemed of a whole other time.
“Everything was forgotten about the dance,” Patsy says. “We had other things to worry about.”
The blackout remained in force for weeks. Even the youngsters were fingerprinted and issued ID cards. The school was closed, but everybody was given classes in the use of gas masks.
“At the time they only had gas masks for adults and not kids, so my mom didn’t take one,” Patsy recalls.
In January, the families were evacuated, Patsy’s among those on a ship outfitted with guns bigger than intended by the original builders.
“When we had gun practice, each blast shook the ship so much, the light fixtures come out of the ceilings,” she recalls.
The convoy zigzagged to avoid possible attack, and the children were required to wear life jackets at all times for the nine days until they finally reached San Francisco. The family had not been allowed to take their dog, but Patsy had been able to bring her jitterbug trophy.
“As I grew up, I always wondered about the sailor I had danced with the night before the raid,” Patsy says. “Who was he? What was his name? Did he come out of the attack alive? Did he wonder who I was? The question was always there.”
Whenever she chanced to meet somebody who had been stationed at Pearl Harbor, she inquired if they happened to have gone to Bloch Arena the night she and the young man she called “my dancing sailor” won the jitterbug contest. She wrote to Our Navy magazine on several occasions and repeated her story to everyone she encountered when she returned to Oahu and visited the USS Arizona Memorial. She also told her story to the newspapers in San Diego, where she settled, taking her husband’s surname, Thompson, and known by the more grown-up sounding Pat as she raised a family of her own.
“I thought it being a Navy town that someone would remember,” she says. “But no one responded ... I thought, well, I’ll just have to live with my memory and my jitterbug trophy.”
Patsy went to work for the San Diego Chargers. Every game was preceded by the national anthem, which brought back the memory of her mother in tears. She also never forgot her dancing sailor and in 1999 told her story to a park ranger at the Arizona memorial.
The ranger took her to the curator, who searched the archives for anything regarding the jitterbug contest.
“There was nothing,” Patsy says.
At the curator’s suggestion, Patsy wrote a letter to the editor of the Pearl Harbor Gram. That brought a response from John Rutledge, who ran a Florida-based newsletter, The Scuttlebutt. Rutledge told her that he had been a piano player with the USS California band that night.
“He said, ‘I saw you dance,’” Patsy recalls. “I couldn’t believe it. I finally had hope of finding my dancing sailor.”
Rutledge ran a story in The Scuttlebutt, and Patsy got a phone call from man saying he was her sailor. His name was Jack Evans, and he had been a 17-year-old assigned to the USS Tennessee. He had been injured during the attack, but he had survived to pursue a career in the Navy, retiring as a captain and settling in Southern California not far from her.
“I found my dancing sailor,“ Patsy says. “After almost 59 years I found him alive and living only 15 miles from me for over 40 years.”
Jack also still had his trophy. He and Patsy brought their trophies along when they were invited to a gala dinner marking the 60th anniversary of the attack. They danced together for the first time since that night before the world changed.
Pat remained very much Patsy.
“We could both swing still pretty good,” Patsy says.
That happened to be three months after another world-changing day of infamy, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Anybody who watched the dance also saw the spirit that had survived Pearl Harbor and would surely survive 9/11 and any challenges to come.
“A happy sad memory,” Patsy says.
Patsy donated her trophy to the Pearl Harbor visitor’s center. It went on display along with a photo of her at 10 and a story whose ultimate message is an addendum to the national anthem that brought tears to her mother as the bombs fell: that star-spangled banner does not just wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave, it dances, no matter how perilous the fight.
Patsy and Jack danced again at the 65th anniversary and remain in touch, getting together from time to time.
“He’ll be 88,” Patsy says. “He’s still doing good. He calls me ‘the Kid.’”
And as we come to the 71st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Patsy of course still calls him My Dancing Sailor.