The Sideshow

Famous photo of female Pearl Harbor firefighters debunked

Eric Pfeiffer
The Sideshow

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A photograph of three women reportedly fighting fires in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor has been debunked. Katherine Lowe, 96, who is the woman standing second from the right in the picture, says that while the photo is real, it wasn't actually taken on December 7, 1941.

On the morning of Dec. 7, "We were ready to go to church," Lowe told msnbc.com. "We didn't know we were at war. We went to church anyway. We were looking at all the planes bombing."

Lowe says she and her co-workers at the Dole pineapple factory did go to work as civilians at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, which did include fighting fires. However, she said the photograph that has received so much attention was likely taken during a training exercise later during the war.

The photograph has had quite the run through the history books. Originally taken by a freelance photographer and now archived at Getty Images, the caption reads, "Women firefighters direct a hose after the Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor."

The photo can also be found on the History Channel website, and it books like "Fit to Fight: Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard 1908-2008," published by the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard Association with the caption "Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, female shipyard workers manned fire hoses to extinguish the blazes at the piers."

MSNBC was able to track down Lowe by turning to novelist and former librarian Dorothea "Dee" Buckingham, who has written extensively about the lives and roles of women during World War II. From MSNBC:

Another note of history: The researcher Dee Buckingham points out that there were firefighters from the Honolulu Fire Department at Hickam Field on the morning of Dec. 7. All were men. Three died when a Japanese bomb fell on them. Here's her blog post about their deaths and compensation for their widows.

And there were women serving in the military at Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack, including nurses. The chief nurse, Annie G. Fox, received the Purple Heart (which at that stage of World War II could be awarded for merit or bravery without wounds) and then received a Bronze Star.

Perhaps more amazing, still, Lowe says she had no idea the photo had made it into the history books. MSNBC adds that the photo was likely a Navy publicity photo taken to showcase the roles of women during the war.

For those who may question the memory of a 96-year-old, Lowe is reportedly still an active bowler with a 145 average. And when a photographer showed up to take her picture, Lowe offered to perform a traditional hula dance.

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