Childhood Memoirs of Pearl Harbor

English: "Remember December 7th" US ...

Image via Wikipedia

On that infamous day, December 7, 1941, I was almost 5 years old and my wife Mollie was almost 4. One doesn’t usually remember much from such an age and yet we both do because it was a time of great change and great emotion. That war was the first in which U.S. soil had been attacked since Colonial times and it changed everything. We were transformed in a single moment from an isolationist and financially depressed society with strong memories of the horrors and carnage of WW I into a fearful and outraged single tribe, a tribe bent not only on survival but terrible retribution.

Even at age 3 years, 10 months, Mollie remembers that day because it was the first time she ever saw adults crying. The nation was still slowly emerging from the Great Depression. She and her parents lived in her grandparents’ large rented duplex on Raleigh Avenue in Norfolk, Virginia. (Mollie’s grandfather had owned a hotel and after the depression ended up being a clerk in that same hotel!) With them in that house, a great, drafty place heated with coal, also lived the grandparents and three uncles, all three of whom immediately voluntarily enlisted in the Army after Pearl Harbor. All returned alive at war’s end, but one who had been an Army corpsman suffered severe psychological problems for the rest of his life, for sure PTSD by today’s definition. Mollie’s father had been recovering from tuberculosis and was ineligible.

Mollie said that her grandfather was the neighborhood air-raid warden. It was his task, one which he took proudly, to patrol the neighborhood nightly to ensure that everyone had their black shades pulled down so that no speck of light escaped – something that speaks volumes about fears and attitudes of that coastal city. She says her grandmother refused to go to the movies during the war. There was no television then of course, so news came over the radio, or at the movies.  A movie was always preceded by a “newsreel” that included coverage of war operations and while light on specific locations and other details they were often graphic. Nannie was scared she might see one of her sons among the injured or dying. She would sometimes go downtown and invite servicemen back to the house for dinner.

In reminiscing over this post Mollie recalled something she had never told me before. Each morning during the war when she came down the big stairs she would stand in the parlor in front of the three pictures of her uncles and sing “God Bless America”.  Every morning.

As for myself, we lived inland and so I never experienced blackouts like Mollie did, but Pearl Harbor did change my life. My dad, a blue-collar oil worker and welder, moved us among several jobs, one being on some kind of government project at a little town in Tennessee named Oak Ridge. I remember riding in the backseat of the car a lot, watching the endless passage of telephone and electrical poles as my father navigated the two-lane roads with speed and daring, my mother white-knuckled in the passenger seat, sans seat belts of course. Flat tires were common, and every man knew how to patch an inner tube. We finished the war in a house in Tulsa where we had the government-recommended Victory garden out back. We grew tomatoes, potatoes, green beans, cabbage and even rhubarb. Mother made excellent rhubarb pie – I can still recall the taste – I liked it. I would sell extra tomatoes around the neighborhood for a quarter a box for extra money.

There was rationing – butter, sugar, meat, tires, but I don’t remember ever wanting for anything. My parents never discussed their worries in front of me – they were stoic. I think that derived from the Great Depression – they knew how bad things could get and they wanted no part of such worries for their only child. When things broke, we repaired them. America was a country united against a common enemy. Politicians, so far as my juvenile mind could record, did not demean each other.

Victory at Sea Title Card.

TV Title, via Wikipedia

A few years after the war, in the early 1950’s I recall watching with great fascination the documentary, Victory at Sea, with its stirring music by Richard Rodgers, and it brought back all that sense I had of enormous pride and confidence in our country, our leadership, our soldiers and sailors. To my youthful mind, America was unbeatable. Even then I was insulated from the horrors of that conflict and only gradually came to realize its complexities and and the great and successful efforts that our leaders used to keep morale high, to realize just how close we came to losing everything. Midway, Hitler’s monumental error in invading the USSR, D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge. Today, most people seem so terribly unaware of those poignant times that both threatened and united us as a people.

Image via Wikipedia

I remember having a piggy bank to save coins to buy stamps which in turn were used to buy government Victory bonds. It was shaped not like a pig, but a little drum, and around its top was the slogan, “Remember Pearl Harbor”. The memory of Pearl Harbor and its aftermath is fading in the body politic after these 70 years, but it is permanently fixed in my own head and will be until I die.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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11 Responses to Childhood Memoirs of Pearl Harbor

  1. PiedType says:

    I was a war baby, born in 1943. No memories of Pearl Harbor per se but rather, the years right after the war. So much patriotism. School days began with the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of every patriotic song you can imagine, including all the songs from all the service branches. My earliest “memory” is more of an impression and is still with me today — an apprehension around trains, especially being on the platform alongside. I’m sure it stems from Mom’s frequent travels by train when I was very young, and the time spent on open platforms next to huge, exposed train wheels and undercarriages, and all the hissing and puffing, rumbling and screeching brakes, bells and whistles.

    I remember playing with a box full of my dad’s assorted uniform pins (if that’s the correct term) — some colorful campaign ribbons, some gold-colored lieutenant’s bars and a major’s oak leaf clusters. Maybe some patches, buttons, etc. He didn’t serve overseas. He was a doctor, assigned to organize a military hospital in Carlisle Barracks, PA. I was always so proud of him, one of The Greatest Generation, although Brokaw didn’t bestow that accolade until much, much later. Growing up in that time makes it doubly difficult to see the bitter divides and lack of patriotism in the country today. The younger generation hasn’t a clue what it was like.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Memoirs are a kind of catharsis, are they not? Somehow I feel when I can dredge one up I have managed, somehow, to leave a speck of myself behind, something perhaps that my descendents might find someday to make them think about origins. And history. And maybe the meaning of life.

      Thanks for your contribution, Pied – a worthy reflection, IMO.


  2. John Erickson says:

    My dad was a few years older at the time of Pearl Harbor. One of his most vibrant memories, as a poor single-parent kid on the South Side of Chicago, was of a friend of his, whose father owned an old car with manual controls for spark plug timing. Once a month, the father would drive my dad and his friend up to the Wisconsin Dells for fishing and swimming and such. Because of rationing, the father assigned the boys the task of filling the tank. This would consist of begging, borrowing, and stealing (Horrors! 😀 ) of various combustible fluids – you name it, they got benzene, kerosene, gasoline, diesel, paint thinner, acetone, and many more. They would pour it all into the car’s tank, and the friend’s father would get the engine started and adjust the controls until the engine ran smoothly!
    To this day, I suspect they invented napalm a few years before the Army did! 😉
    And on a serious note, kudos to NBC news for not only mentioning the 70th anniversary, but mentioning two vets who were buried on their ships – USS Arizona and (applause) USS Utah. Poor, old, mostly forgotten Utah, technically a gunnery training ship but still bearing her battleship name, sunk at her moorings like Arizona but without her fame. You can find more about Utah at (I think that’s the link – I recently lost a bunch of bookmarks).


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      A nice bit of history, John. Your story makes me think of carburetors, a more infernal contraption than which was never built. Thanks to whichever engineer came up with fuel injection.

      As for the burials at Pearl, I saw that too. Very moving indeed. When I was stationed at Pearl for three years we passed Ford Island many times, but it has meant more to me with the passing years than it did then. Thanks.


  3. henrygmorgan says:

    Jim: We must be about the same age; I was in the first grade on Dec. 7, and I share most of your memories as recounted here. Like you, I was stationed on Oahu also, at Kaneohe Bay Marine Corps Air Station (then), but it was in the fifties, it was still TH (Territory of Hawaii), and none of the present Pearl Harbor memorials were in existence then. Last January, my wife and I and another couple went back to Oahu for the first time since our service there. He is a retired Navy Captain, a fly boy stationed at Barber’s Point, where he lived with his wife and two kids.

    We went to his old base, which is now out of commission, and to my old base at KBay, which I couldn’t even recognize, so many changes have been made there and it has grown so hugely. We went to the Arizona Memorial, first time for both of us, and a moving experience. Like you, my Marine Regiment shipped out of Pearl, passing by Ford Island, on the way to Korea and other Pacific points, and I could remember that well as we stood there on the Arizona Memorial.

    Thank you for your comments here and the wonderful walk down memory lane.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Coming from a Marine makes your comments especially meaningful. My principal experience with the USMC was when I was XO of the NROTC Unit at the University of Kansas in the late 1970’s and I interacted with the Marine instructor and his group, and the CO for part of the time was a Marine Colonel. Finer human beings I have never met. (That Major went on to attain flag rank.) There is no more dedicated and disciplined fighting force in the world, in my opinion, than the United States Marine Corps.

      Thanks for your kind comments, Henry.


  4. Jennifer Lockett says:

    Thank you for sharing!


  5. The world is a much better place for what your parents and mine accomplished in that war. It was this county’s finest hour to date anyway. On the other hand the position it left us in, I think has given many unrealistic expectation of just how dominate we should be or even are entitled to be in the world.


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      I have had the same thought, Bruce. It is ironic, I submit, that a substantial part of America’s economic success has derived from war. WW II was obviously the most powerful in that sense. It was followed by Korea, a so-called “police action” which, significantly, saw the nation’s first peace-time conscription, and then of course the Cold War with fears of nuclear attack, and then tapering to Vietnam, a war fought mainly by conscripts and the poor. I see it as a continuum in which unity and sense of shared sacrifice gradually diminished. Here in the present, with the so-called War on Terror, I feel that cohesive spirit has disappeared, only to be replaced by a superficial patriotism, a peeling without the fruit. I submit that it should not be surprising then that our economy should suffer as well.


  6. I reread this post (well-written, by the way, and quite a description of another time and, dare I say it, place) after I started thinking about the pulling out of Iraq and how much different that is from something like a V-E Day or V-J Day.

    You wrote,

    Today, most people seem so terribly unaware of those poignant times that both threatened and united us as a people.

    I suppose in some ways what happend on 9/11 will evoke memories like the ones you shared of Pearl Harbor, but we all know that the end of the so-called war on terror will, in the unlikely event it ever ends, be much different from the end of WW II and maybe that tells us something important about the wisdom of fighting that war the way we are and maybe it doesn’t.

    Time, as always, will have the last word.



  7. “superficial patriotism, a peeling without the fruit”

    Amen to that. This displays itself in how easy it is to get folks to chat “USA! USA!”, but how hard it is to elicite broad support for anything that involves real sacrifice.

    As a great power we should act like one as we did after WW II: confident, generous but not noisely boastful; instead we seem inclined to be the opposite, fearful and wanting vengence, increasingly inclined to promote our interests over those of the world at large, and needing to constantly remind everyone that we’re number 1 in case they’ve forgotten.


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