Betty Blake wouldn’t be here today, if not for fate and Southern Comfort.
The 21-year-old pilot had been scheduled to fly a tourist from one Hawaiian island to another on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. The day before, the tourist cancelled the flight, freeing Blake to spend an evening at the Pearl Harbor Officers Club with three navy ensigns.
“I had never had a drink in my life,” says Blake, now 87. “I was just 21. That night these three ensigns thought they should initiate me, so they bought me my first drink, which was Southern Comfort. It was so smooth and sweet, so I had three or four of those.”
Sixty-six years later Blake marvels at her luck. Had Blake been in the sky that morning, she probably would have been shot down by Japanese planes and become another casualty of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“I really have had a guardian angel,” the Scottsdale resident says.
The attack marked the end of Blake’s life in paradise, and the beginning of her stint as a WASP.
End of paradise
After that night at the officers club, Blake woke the next morning to the sound of anti-aircraft firing at Japanese planes, and bombs sinking ships in the harbor. The attack began around 7:40 a.m.
“I had such a hangover when the bombs started landing,” says Blake. “I just wanted to put a pillow over my head. We had so many practice sessions over there for two or three months. They were always shooting anti-aircraft off. We were used to hearing it.”
No one could have imagined such a thing happening. Blake and her friends spent their days in an idyllic bubble hanging out on the beach, surfing, schmoozing with vacationing movie stars and skipping school.
But that morning was no practice.
“The practice puffs they would use were white,” says Blake. “But this morning they were dark gray.”
Blake’s family watched the scene unfold from their home atop a hill overlooking Diamond Head and Pearl Harbor.
“It was like a forest fire of black smoke,” says Blake. “You couldn’t see Pearl Harbor. All the oil in the ships was on fire. The water around the ships was absolutely black with it. A lot of guys that got out of the ships were in the water and they came out black with oil.”
Blake’s fiancé Robert Tackaberry stood with the family watching the chaos below. One of the ensigns who had introduced Blake to Southern Comfort the night before, he had driven Blake home and her father offered to let him spend the night. That chivalrous act saved his life.
“The other two I had a drink with that night were both killed,” says Blake. “One was on the (U.S.S.) Arizona and the other was my husband-to-be’s roommate. If (Tackaberry) had gone back that night he’d have been killed, too.”
Tackaberry’s ship, the U.S.S. California, was sunk. Only the top deck remained above water in a harbor that was only 40 feet deep.
In the days following the attack, Blake and other islanders went about their daily lives in a daze. Tackaberry returned to what was left of his ship and manned the guns. He reported to his fiancée that as he sat at post he could see bodies surfacing and other boats with hooks picking them up out of the water.
“It took people weeks to realize what had happened,” says Blake. “This was such a peaceful island. Nothing ever went wrong.”
While in Philadelphia, Blake was recruited to join an elite corps known as the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, known as WASPs. These women flew planes from the factories to bases where they would be deployed in the Pacific or the Atlantic. Blake flew P-51 Mustangs and other planes.
“We were the guinea pig class because we were an experiment,” says Blake. “They didn’t think girls would be able to fly military planes.”
Blake and the other WASPs logged in nearly 60 million miles until the program was disbanded in December 1944.
For Blake, the attack on Pearl Harbor was one of the most important events in her life. Had it not been for the attack, Blake would have probably spent the war in Hawaii flying passengers from one island to another or “waiting in a dark room listening to the radio (for news).” Instead, Blake found her calling and the courage to soar above what was expected of a woman in the 1940s.
“I feel like I was one of the very lucky ones,” says Blake.