I was a decade away from even being a glimmer in my parent’s eyes when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred on December 7, 1941, so I have no true remembrances of the “Day Which Will Live in Infamy”. My remembrances come from listening to my father and his friends talking, history books, documentaries, and movies.
My father, a single, twenty-five-year-old at the time, did what many patriotic young men did and with several friends headed to the Marine recruitment center to join up…only to find out he was 4F due to a birth defect he didn’t even know he had. Determined, he attempted to enlist in the Navy and Army but was turned down.
Two years later, the now-married twenty-seven-year-old, would receive a letter that might have begun “Greetings, your friends and neighbors….” Drafting a married, twenty-seven-year-old missing an entire row of ribs and vertebrae they attached to should tell you how dire the situation was in late 1943.
My Father, a mechanic, was eventually assigned to amphibious assault teams training in Carrabelle, Florida. Later he would join MacArthur in time to assault the Philippines, Okinawa, and finally would step ashore on mainland Japan as a part of the occupation force. I wish I knew more but his military records were destroyed in a fire at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri.
I remember sitting as a family in front of our black and white television on a Sunday evening, December 3, 1961. Walter Cronkite was the narrator of the CBS documentary program, The Twentieth Century. On this night, the Sunday prior to the fifteenth anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, we sat as a family watching and listening.
The episode was “The Man Who Spied on Pearl Harbor” and Cronkite’s distinctive voice narrated the black and white action scenes, some made as the attack occurred, most staged for propaganda use during the war itself, as we remembered Pearl Harbor…and as I remember that night in 1961.
Over the years my thirst for knowledge about Pearl Harbor and my father’s war has caused me to read, watch or listen to almost every available documentary, book, movie, or interview about Pearl Harbor specifically and World War Two. Thankfully, I had access to the History Channel when it aired programs about history rather than programing about Alaskan truck drivers or pawn shops. I continue to remember Pearl Harbor, the men who lived it, died during the attack, the ships that were sunk, some later resurrected…and my father who was thousands of miles away at the time.
Many of my father’s friends served and I remember their visits. Stories told around a dining room table. Older men, cigarette smoke swirling toward the ceiling, coffee left to get cold as they talked. Like many veterans of any wars their stories didn’t focus on death and violence but on humor and comradery.
One story even involved my mother. She did her patriotic duty working in a munitions plant. If one of my father’s friends was to be believed, sitting in rain filled foxholes with artillery shells being fired over their heads at unseen Japanese positions in the Philippines, one landed short and didn’t explode. My taciturn father was quoted to have said, “That must have been one of Eldora’s.”
I have never outgrown my interest in World War Two movies seen repeatedly over again, especially those taking place in the Pacific Theater, the theater my father said he didn’t fight in.
“What did you do in the war, Daddy?”
“Son, I was so far away from the fighting the nurses went in before we did.” His admission did not deter my interest…or my pride.
My favorite movies and stories were those involving Pearl Harbor on the periphery, not the center stage like “Tora, Tora, Tora”. Instead, it was Fred Zimmerman’s “From Here to Eternity”, John Ford’s “They Were Expendable”, and my absolute favorite, Otto Preminger’s “In Harm’s Way”.
A line from “in Harm’s Way” has always stuck in my head. It was uttered by Henry Fonda portraying Admiral Chester Nimitz, “On the most exalted throne in the world, we are seated on nothing but our own arses.” Good words to remember whether at war or sitting in your recliner.
The featured image I used is a colorized picture of the iconic USS Arizona burning after the attack. I met a survivor of the attack in the late Seventies. A career Navy man he had “joined” up after the War to End All Wars as an eighteen-year-old and served for thirty years. He served in dozens of Pacific stations from China to San Diego. One of those ports was in Pearl Harbor on board the USS Arizona.
Among his many duties was manning an anti-aircraft gun should there be an attack. He never got the opportunity. Providence intervened that day. Off duty, he met a friend ashore and watched helplessly as 1,177 of his shipmates and his ship were sent to glory. Despite the life he was able to live…to create, he never quite forgave himself for surviving.
As I’ve gotten older and a bit of a peacenik, I find myself watching less the movies about the valor and courage of our fighting men and more about the periphery, the politics, our own cruelties…which are simply the cruelties of war itself.
I hope we continue to “Remember Pearl Harbor” and the generation characterized by Tom Brokaw as the “Greatest Generation”. We need to remember the sacrifices they made in our last righteous war before the concepts of good versus evil became so blurred during the Cold War and in the Middle East.
For more of Don Miller’s unique views of life, humor, and Southern stories of a bygone time, try http://goo.gl/lomuQf