71 years later

Columbia native looks back at the attack on Pearl Harbor (+video)

jwilkinson@thestate.comDecember 7, 2012 

  • 40 years later Pearl Harbor survivor Lois Goforth is featured in the documentary “A World War,” which is the fifth episode of the ongoing series “South Carolinians in World War II”– a partnership between The State newspaper and ETV. For more information about the series go to www.SCWW2.com

Lois Samsel of Columbia was a recently married Army wife, pregnant and living in paradise in Hawaii in 1941. But she knew something was terribly wrong when her dog, Missy, started an unearthly howling about 7 a.m. one Sunday morning.

“She was crying. I mean just crying,” said Lois Samsel Goforth, now 92 and living in Aiken. “We could hear all this artillery and planes. We were used to things like that. But I knew something was wrong because of Missy.”

Goforth and her husband at the time, Jim Samsel, ran outside and saw planes flying low, their wings brushing the tops of eucalyptus trees that lined nearby Wheeler Army Airfield. At first Goforth thought they were American planes and waved at them. Then the shocking realization began to sink in.

“I said, ‘Jim, these are funny looking planes. They have orange circles on the side,’” she recalled. “He practically picked me up and put me back in the house. The planes were strafing all around.”

Many people are familiar with the stories of the men who fought and died during the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, that Goforth witnessed 71 years ago today, where 2,402 military personnel were killed and 1,247 wounded. But it was also an event that shaped the lives of women and children who were stationed there.

During and after the Pearl Harbor attacks, 57 civilians were killed and 35 were wounded, some by friendly fire. Of those, at least 12 were women and children, according to the website pearlharbor.org, produced by American Public University.

And for the thousands of women and children who survived the attack, which launched the United States into World War II, their lives were changed in ways unimaginable at the time.

Goforth’s story “was one we hadn’t heard before,” said Wade Sellers, director of the documentary series “South Carolinians in World War II,” a partnership between The State newspaper and ETV in which Goforth was featured . “It’s easy to forget there were wives and children there.”

‘Which one and who’s calling?’

In 1940, Goforth, a University of South Carolina student at the time, met Fort Jackson soldier James Richard Samsel at the photography shop in Columbia where she worked. At first she was not taken with the brash Oregonian. But he was persistent in asking her out, and even sent her mother a dozen roses after securing an invitation to dinner.

“I finally succumbed,” Goforth said.

About a year later, Samsel was stationed in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

“He phoned me to propose,” Goforth said. “I said, ‘Jim, you’ll have to ask my father.’ In those days that’s what you did.”

Samsel made the call to Goforth’s father, Earl Jenkins, who worked for the Railway Express Agency in Columbia.

Goforth said she was told the conversation went like this:

“I’m in love your daughter and I want to marry her,” Samsel said.

“You certainly may,” said Jenkins, father of three daughters. “Which one and who’s calling?”

“We got married and sailed immediately for Hawaii,” Goforth said.

‘Utter confusion . . . scared to death’

In Hawaii, the couple lived well, first in a beach house, then in “a nice little two bedroom house” in the Schofield Barracks Army post near Wheeler Army Air Base.

They were both stunned by the attack.

“The planes were going over us and destroying the air base,” Goforth said. “They blew up all of Wheeler Field. There wasn’t a plane left. It looked like a movie. There was so much confusion, utter confusion.”

Jim Samsel jumped in the car and took off for his unit.

“He was going as fast as he could and this plane was just following him,” Goforth said. “Luckily, he was not hit. I stood there on the covered porch and watched it, just scared to death.”

After the attack subsided, Goforth and other women and children were moved to military barracks, then put on buses that night and taken to a school in a remote mountainous area.

“We drove right by Pearl Harbor and it was horrible,” Goforth said. “You could see the ships burning, tossed over on their sides. You could read a newspaper from the flames from those ships.”

The school was filled with more women and children.

“Because I was five months pregnant they found a cot for me,” Goforth said. “I felt terrible. I was sleeping on a cot and everyone else was sleeping on the floor.”

‘Caught with our pants down’

Goforth and other families were transferred to homes after a few days; but, they were required to stay indoors almost all the time, with the windows blacked out.

By January – a month after the attack – resupply ships finally arrived to bring food and medical supplies to the beleaguered island. It was a turning point: the women, children and wounded were loaded up for transport back to the mainland United States.

“It was a terrible trip,” Goforth said. “There was no weight (in the hold) so we just bounced over the waves.”

The convoy included three ships with women and children and escort warships. The convoy zigzagged constantly to avoid Japanese submarines and took 11 days to complete the voyage to San Francisco.

“It would have been terrible if (the Japanese) had gotten one of those ships,” Goforth said.

When the ships landed in San Francisco, the Army had bassinets lined up on dock in anticipation of newborns.

“I think there was one baby born on the ship,” Goforth said. “Maybe a couple more on the other ships. But they were well prepared for us.”

Newspapers covered the pregnant women returning from Pearl Harbor.

“One reporter wrote, ‘Now we know why we got caught with our pants down at Pearl Harbor,” Goforth said, laughing. “That was in the paper! In San Francisco!”

‘I didn’t see my husband again for two years’

Goforth was placed on a train for Columbia. Her father, Earl Jenkins, got on a train at the same time and they met in the middle of the country.

“I was never so happy to see anyone in my life,” Goforth said.

Goforth would go on to have her first son in Columbia Hospital.

“It was the first child born to a Pearl Harbor evacuee,” she said. “It was quite a deal. I stayed in the hospital for a week and went home in an ambulance. Can you imagine?”

She added “I didn’t see my husband again for two years. He didn’t see his child till he was two years old. He was just gone, fighting the war.”

Jim Samsel survived the war and the two were reunited at Camp Roberts on the West Coast, where Samsel finally met his son, James Earl Samsel. The older Samsel left the service briefly, but was recalled to fight again in Korea.

After the Korean war, the family lived in California until Samsel, a Piper Cub aircraft salesman was killed in a plane crash in 1960.

Goforth later married Charles Goforth in California, and the two moved to Aiken when Goforth’s second child, Diane Samsel, graduated from high school.

Goforth, although a great storyteller, didn’t talk much about her experiences at Pearl Harbor until recently. Some of the details she revealed to The State and ETV in February were new to her children and grandchildren.

“I didn’t know much about it until I was an adult,” said daughter Diane Samsel of Tryon, N.C., who graduated from USC and helped found the funky Five Points store Joyful Alternative in Columbia. “And I didn’t hear the story about my father being chased by a Japanese pilot until she was filmed for the documentary. She was an excellent storyteller. But (throughout her life) she didn’t have time to tell about her history. Everything was about what was happening now.”

Mindy Lucas contributed to this story.

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