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.
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.
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.