Pearl Harbor Through Wisconsin Eyes: Stories from the State’s 150 Survivors

Courtesy: US Navy

By Christina Lorey
November 8, 2022

Only a handful of dates become “where were you when” moments in history. December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy,” is certainly one.

However, most of us weren’t alive– or old enough to remember– 81 years ago, so we rely on the recollections of Wisconsin soldiers who witnessed the infamy firsthand. 200 Wisconsin service members were 4,000 miles away, on the ground in Honolulu, during the Pearl Harbor attack. 50 died.

These are the stories of several of the 150 survivors… 

Courtesy Wisconsin Veterans Museum

Arthur G. “Art” Rortvedt of DeForest, Wisconsin registered for the draft in March on 1940, but preferring not to go into the Army, enlisted in the Army Air Corps instead. He completed his basic training at Wheeler Army Airfield and was assigned to the 58th Bomb Squadron at Hickam Field one month before the attack. 

Art later credited his survival that morning to a simple choice: not to eat breakfast in the mess hall, which was heavily bombed. In 1999, he sat down for an oral history interview with the Wisconsin Historical Society: 

“We heard the explosions and thought it was our Navy training. Then we saw the Japanese aircraft. We got organized and I was on a .50 caliber machine gun and I was firing at the aircraft in the second wave. There was confusion. We could see the third wave was bombing at a higher altitude.”

Art spent the rest of the war on Kanton Island and Makin Island working as an aircraft mechanic. He later re-enlisted and served in the Air Force until 1950.

Courtesy Wisconsin Veterans Museum

Harold “Chief” Schleusner of Bruce enlisted in the United States Navy in 1939 at the age of 18. By 21, he was an Aviation Machinist’s Mate Third Class at the Naval Air Station located on Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor.

Chief later recounted that on the morning of December 7th, everyone in his barracks woke up to an announcement from their commander that they were under attack. They thought it was a joke. 

Quickly, reality sunk in when a bomb dropped on a hanger a few buildings away. Chief said he had just made it down to the mess hall when the USS Arizona was bombed just 200 yards away. 

Fortunately, Chief and all but one sailor at the Naval Air Station survived that day.

Courtesy Wisconsin Veterans Museum

Rhoda Ann Ziesler of Manitowoc, Wisconsin joined the United States Army Nurse Corps in 1940. Just weeks before the attack, she was transferred from her training grounds at Camp Custer, Michigan to the 215th General Hospital located in central Oahu, where was appointed head nurse of a 112-bed ward. 

Wheeler Army Airfield, a primary target in the attack, was next to the hospital. She later recounted her experience in an application for the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association:

“On the morning of the attack, I and several other nurses were on duty and stepped outdoors to see what was happening. The Japanese planes were flying so low. We could see the rising sun [on the planes].”

Rhoda remained in Hawaii for the rest of the war, where she met and fell in love with fellow Wisconsinite and soldier Robert Weller who she went on to marry. 

Click here for more stories from Wisconsinites who survived the attack.

Thank you to all the men and women who continue to make sacrifices for our safety.

RELATED: Green Bay Family Sends 550+ Care Packages to Soldiers Overseas. Here’s How You Can Help


  • Christina Lorey

    Christina is an Edward R. Murrow-winning journalist and former producer, reporter, and anchor for TV stations in Madison and Moline. When she’s not writing or asking questions, you can find her volunteering with Girls on the Run, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, and various mental health organizations.

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