Radar Operator George Elliott: RIP, gone to the Great Bogey in the Sky
George Elliott, Who Warned of Planes Nearing Pearl, Dead at 85
The Associated Press
Published: Dec 23, 2003
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. (AP) - George E. Elliott Jr., whose warning early on Dec. 7, 1941, of planes approaching Pearl Harbor went unheeded, has died of complications from a stroke. He was 85.
Elliott, who died Saturday, was the Army radar operator who detected the incoming Japanese aircraft an hour before they reached the Navy fleet in the harbor.
His warning went unheeded and the day became one "that will live in infamy."
A 50-year anniversary story by The Associated Press told how Elliott and another private, Joseph L. Lockard, had been on duty since 4 a.m. at Kahuku Point on the northern tip of Oahu, Hawaii, familiarizing themselves with a new marvel that could "see" 130 miles to sea - radar.
Just after 7 a.m., Elliott saw "something completely out of the ordinary" on the screen, a huge blip, due north, 137 miles out. The information was called in to headquarters, and the operators were told it was a flight of B-17 Flying Fortresses due in from California.
They kept tracking for practice, and the blip grew so large that Lockard figured the set was broken. They turned it off at 7:45, after the blip disappeared behind Oahu's mountains.
About 10 minutes later, the first bombs were falling on battleship row.
Later that morning, when Elliott and Lockard arrived back at their base, they learned the significance of what they had observed.
"He had a feeling of frustration that if the warning had been heeded they could have at least got planes in the air and lives could have been saved," Elliott's son, Tom, told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Tuesday. "He felt that way right up to the day he died."
Elliott served in the Army until 1945, then worked for New Jersey Bell Telephone for 33 years before retiring.
In later years, his warning at Pearl Harbor brought him fame. The actions of the radar operators were depicted in the 1970 movie "Tora, Tora, Tora," on television specials and in history books.
"It's been quite an event in our family for a number of years," Tom Elliott said. "Every year around Dec. 7, he was called from newspaper reporters and television stations around the country, all wanting to know more about that fateful day."
Survivors also include a brother, Clarence Elliott of Port Charlotte, and longtime companion Eloise Falknor.
There will be a private burial. Paul Schelm Funeral Home in Port Charlotte is in charge.
What of the man who took Elliott's warning that December morning? Well, here he is.....
Posted on: Tuesday, December 7, 1999
‘Don’t worry about it’: Army Lt. Kermit Tyler’s four simple words took on an infamy all their own after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor
By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
In the darkened theater, the audiences all react the same way. Daniel Martinez has seen it again and again. As old newsreel footage fills the screen of the Arizona Memorial Visitors Center, a sense of dread begins to grow. Audiences know that Japanese warplanes are winging toward Pearl Harbor. They know hundreds of U.S. sailors are about to die.
But when they hear that radar operators have questioned the large spot that has materialized on their screen, a groan always follows the official response: “Don’t worry about it.”
The words of Kermit Tyler, an Army lieutenant, are soon lost in a cacophony of bombs and burning ships. Martinez, historian for the USS Arizona Memorial, said the words have become the most misunderstood statement of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack.
Through the years, Tyler has been ridiculed in books and by Hollywood, he said.
Martinez hopes to change that.
The National Park Service historian has invited Tyler to be today’s keynote speaker at the 58th anniversary commemoration of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
It will be a rare chance to clarify history, he said. To put the words into context.
“In that one moment, where history hangs in the balance, Kermit Tyler becomes focused as an opportunity lost,” Martinez said. “The words have their own infamy that has surrounded this story. It’s so unfair.”
Little experience at job
Tyler was a fighter pilot in 1941. The serviceman, born in Iowa and raised in Long Beach, Calif., was assigned to the Army Air Corps’ 78th Pursuit Squadron at Wheeler Field in Central Oahu.
But on Dec. 7, he was working as the “pursuit officer” at the Fort Shafter Information Center on a 4 a.m.-to-8 a.m shift. He had only done this job once before.
Tyler’s task was to help other, more experienced officers assign planes to intercept enemy aircraft. The trouble was, those officers didn’t have to work on Dec. 7 and the crew of enlisted men who plotted aircraft positions on a large map finished their shift promptly at 7 a.m.
Tyler was alone with a telephone operator when the line rang about six minutes later. On the other end were two Army privates assigned to the Opana Radar Station near Kahuku. They had seen something big on their radar scope, and it was moving very quickly.
Tyler mulled the information before concluding they were probably seeing a dozen U.S. B-17 bombers flying in from the West Coast.
A friend who was a bomber pilot had recently told Tyler that in-bound flights like that were guided by radio music. And that morning as he had driven his car into work, Tyler had listened to Hawaiian music on KGMB when it normally would have been off the air.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said.
But instead of noting Tyler’s lack of on-the-job experience or the fact that radar scopes back then could not determine friend from foe, historians, journalists and movie makers slandered the pilot, Martinez said.
“Even had Kermit Tyler seized upon the idea that this was a threat, he had no ability to contact the airfields to warn them to scramble the planes,” Martinez said. “There was no telephone system yet to call and issue a warning.”
Only his decision — his four simple words — remained. There was no getting away from it.
“History doesn’t allow you to escape an event as large as Pearl Harbor,” Martinez said. “He was haunted by this.”
He’d make same decision
Tyler’s decision was reviewed in 1944 as part of a congressional investigation into the attack. Much of the blame was placed on the top Army and Navy commanders in Hawaii.
Tyler spent 25 years in the military, retiring in San Diego as a lieutenant colonel in 1961. He worked in the real estate business for many years. What had happened wasn’t a secret, but it wasn’t something he spoke of much.
Today, at 86, he’s still a little reluctant.
“I don’t know if I am really enthusiastic about the speech,” Tyler said. “But I feel more that I am a part of history, and I have an obligation.”
The years have not changed the facts of that terrible day, nor his interpretation of them, he said.
“I did what was the logical thing, in light of my training,” he said. “It’s my opinion, if I had to do it again a hundred times, I’d do the same thing. Logically, the apparent facts lined up to look like something else.”
Through the years, Tyler has received about a half dozen or so angry letters and roughly the same number of questionnaires from historians.
But Tyler insists, with aw-shucks delivery, that he wasn’t bothered by the way he was portrayed.
“If I felt the load, that whole thing on my shoulders, that would be too much to bear,” he said.
His son-in-law, Jeff Jones, said that is just Tyler’s humble personality trying to bury the pain.
Jones and his wife, Julie, accompanied Tyler to Hawaii in 1991 for the 50th anniversary of the Dec. 7 attack, also at the invitation of historian Dan Martinez.
During that visit, Tyler spoke at a symposium that featured the two Army radar operators who had warned him years earlier.
“It was therapeutic for him,” Jeff Jones said.
“It was a chance for him to see it officially out in the open, for better or for worse.”
The symposium, which angered some Pearl Harbor survivors just before it commenced, went well. And Tyler’s story left some in tears.
“He put a face on his name,” Jones said. “And everybody saw him as a person. They saw he was another guy, just like them, doing his job.”
Learning more about father
Julie Jones will be here for this week’s speech. She said her father, a “strong dad” who taught his children about responsibility, has searched his heart for answers.
“To be a part of this part of his life is like I am coming around to a more completeness of knowing who my dad was and how this shaped his life,” she said. “I am treasuring the moments.”
In the introduction he has written about Tyler, Martinez said history is not fair and often cruel.
But the way it is told is what angers Martinez.
“He told me a very sad story,” Martinez said. “In 1970, he was invited to attend the premiere of ‘Tora, Tora, Tora.’
“He had been told that he played a role in the picture. So he proudly brought his family to see the film.”
On the screen, a carousing, slovenly soldier at a bar complains that he has just been called up to Fort Shafter.
“There, in the darkness of the theater, he once more saw himself vilified,” Martinez said. “He was just so embarrassed.”