From Pearl Harbor attack to ‘tradition of service’

  • Published
  • By Jerry Bynum
  • 624th Regional Support Group
It all started on a quiet Sunday morning 77 years ago. A young U.S. Army Air Forces aircraft maintainer went out to the flight line Dec. 7, 1941, to welcome Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber aircraft scheduled to arrive at Hickam Field, Hawaii. In the distance, the sound of planes could be heard, but it wasn’t that of B-17s. What happened next would change the course of world history … the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Private Ralph Yeager was stationed in Hawaii in late 1940, and was assigned to the 22nd Material Squadron, 17th Air Base Group, Hickam Field. When the attack started, Yeager reflected on how he and those with him ran for their lives.

“You should have seen me outrun lead and shrapnel,” said Yeager in a letter sent home Dec. 17, 1941. “I had on my steel helmet and that passed off a piece of the same bomb that got Pell and Andy.”

He went on to say that they, the Japanese, didn’t have a bomb with his name on it.

Almost eight decades later, a tradition of service in the Pacific continues. Yeager’s granddaughter, inspired by his service, walks on the same ground he did so many years ago. U.S. Air Force Col. Athanasia Shinas, 624th Regional Support Group commander, reflected on the inspiration her grandfather provided, and remembers the sacrifice of those who gave so much.

“It’s really meaningful and powerful to be in the same place where my grandfather served,” said Shinas. “It really says a lot about legacy, and makes you reflect on what your legacy can be. He was part of the ‘greatest generation,’ and it’s humbling to follow in his footsteps knowing what he and others like him contributed. Service was a part of who he was … it was part of his ethos.”

The newly established U.S. Pacific Fleet became permanently based at Pearl Harbor just a few months before the attack in 1941.

"The Japanese bombers targeted Hickam Field's hangars, flightline and consolidated barracks that housed 3,200 enlisted, which is currently the U.S. Pacific Air Forces headquarters building, in two separate attack waves," said Jessie Higa, a local historian who conducts weekly tours at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. "There were 189 killed in action and over 300 wounded at Hickam Field. Our buildings, streets and parking lots were a battle field."

The surprise early morning attack, which left more than 3,700 U.S. casualties, led the nation to enter World War II. In the end, America lost five ships and 170 aircraft, leaving many more badly damaged. Because of this, Dec. 7, 1941, changed the course of American history and will forever be remembered as “a date which will live in infamy."

“At the time he had no idea what was coming, he was so young” said Shinas. “He didn’t know he was the start of a tradition where his family would go on to serve generations later.”

After the attack, Yeager transitioned from a maintainer and served as a B-17 tail gunner. He went on to fly during multiple battles across the Pacific. His brother, Charles Yeager, also served with the U.S. Navy during the war. They had the chance to cross paths a few times during their service. After the war, Yeager left military service and settled in Mountainside, New Jersey, with his wife, Marian, where they started a family. Yeager made a life-long career in the transportation industry.

“My grandfather was an alternate father figure to me,” said Shinas. “My father worked nights, and my ‘Pappy’ was there. We were very close … we were all a tight-knit family unit. When I started to think about military service, I knew I wanted to be an Airman like my grandfather.”

According to Yeager’s daughter, Sharon Shinas, there are two things that stand out … family service, and the character her father has been passed down.

“Just about everyone in our family has served,” said Sharon. “My father joined the day after his high school graduation. He was honest, dependable, and took pride in his work. He constantly tried to do better. These are all qualities I see in my daughter, Athanasia. I know that he'd be proud knowing she’s literally following in his footsteps in Hawaii.”

Shinas started her career as a maintenance officer. She served on active duty for 12 years before transferring to the Air Force Reserve in 2009. Before taking command of the 624th RSG in July 2018, Shinas was a National Security Fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where she studied economics, negotiation, foreign policy, public narrative, and performed academic research on public support for the “Long War.”

Recognizing the strategic advantage of her organization, Shinas leads the largest Air Force Reserve presence in the Pacific, providing more than 600 combat-ready Airmen who specialize in the throughput of cargo, passengers, patients and runway repair worldwide.

“I’d like to think that he’d be proud to know I’m here,” said Shinas. “It’s surreal to live and work on base, walk by the same fields where he play baseball, and to see the same buildings and flight line where he worked. You just never know the legacy you’ll leave behind, or the impression you’ll have on someone in your life.”