Remembering the day of infamy

It’s hard to imagine a less memorable anniversary than the 79th, which is today’s for Pearl Harbor Day, the infamous attack that drew us into World War II, and opened the door for America to emerge as a superpower and leader of the free world.

Battleship USS West Virginia sunk and burning at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. In background is the battleship USS Tennessee. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

There will be notice taken of the anniversary on the news, there will be commemorations, and wreath laying (at the U.S.S. Arizona, among others), and memorials. But the bigger salutes will come next year, on the 80th, when we will see fewer survivors of the sneak attack.

That the U.S. should have anticipated. We were unprepared, as we often are. 9/11 being another example.

At the war’s outbreak, the U.S. army was smaller than that of Portugal. We were unprepared, although the draft had been reinstituted in 1940. 

I know a lot of people believe we spend too much on defense, and there is some truth to that, but we should have learned that a weak America invites attack, while a strong America helps protect against attack. 

 We lost about 2,400 Americans on Pearl Harbor Day.

Those deaths galvanized a nation, and from way back in the pack, an army and air force were built up. Millions of men were drafted on top of those who volunteered. America’s industrial base went on a wartime footing and millions of Jeeps, and tanks, and bombers, and fighters, and rifles, and bombs, were mass produced.

As Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor,  reportedly wrote in his diary, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

He was right.

I look back on World War II with a kind of manufactured nostalgia. As I grow closer to the end of my days, I feel myself being drawn closer to what is called, rightfully, the Greatest Generation. I feel more kinship with them than my own selfish generation, and those following.

I was born before the war but have no memory of it. My earliest memory in life, though, was playing in a closet in our ground-floor apartment in The Bronx, and hearing a knock on the front door, which was wood with glass panes.

Knocking on the door, silhouetted against the late-afternoon golden light on the tenement across the street, was a man in an Army uniform. My mother came out of the kitchen and turned the corner to the foyer, from where she could see the soldier.

I remember she screamed. It was her brother, my Uncle Sonny, returning from the war.

—-

I can’t forget Pearl Harbor Day, a horrible loss that started our war, and I can’t forget D-Day, a significant victory that proved to be the beginning of the end for Hitler and his “master race.”

Last year, the 75th anniversary of D-Day, I felt myself drawn to Normandy, where I toured the battlefield, then the American cemetery, where I adopted a Pennsylvania soldier named Eake De Marco.  

I don’t know what draws me to this. Perhaps because it was the last war that asked so much of us, or because it was the last “good war,” without argument, perhaps because had we lost, freedom would have been extinguished throughout the world.

The men who fought the war were mainly in their teens and early 20s, the people who today need safe spaces on campus to hide them from unpleasant ideas. 

I exempt from that the 1% who volunteer for military service. Do we thank them enough? I don’t think so.

I think of them, and thank them, as we mark another Pearl Harbor Day. 

21 thoughts on “Remembering the day of infamy”

  1. Nice piece, Stu, but I wish you had mentioned that no place in America contributed more to the war effort than Philadelphia. At its peak (1943?), the Delaware Valley had some 2 million workers in war-related industries; the city was known as “America’s Arsenal”

  2. A very descriptive family event pointing out just how many American families answered the door to a very sad military set of uniforms. I always remember the gold star in the window and there were many. And the world is less safe because of what grew out of it from the losing side. The greatest generation followed the war to end all wars until Korea, Vietnam and other police actions. The ability to generate nuclear bombs so small that they can be carried in a suitcase and many in the hands of those who see this earth as just a stop on the road to eternal bliss. Being on the downside of my years I must contemplate the future in terms of what possible words or actions could persuade the fanatics from all sections of the world to choose life instead of the destruction of the human race. Probably the most critical time in the history of our species that the United Nation, the U.S. and the European Union must collectively utilize the greatest act of diplomacy ever undertaken and reduce the nuclear arsenal and find some road to peace so that our legacy can continue before becoming the last generation.

  3. HAPPY MONDAY !!!
    Stu,
    Always a pleasure to read your work. It’s somehow amazing, that when we are young, we “know it all”. Now, as we round the last turn of this race, we reflect back on what was/is so important.
    Leaving politics out of this reply, America has always stepped up for the right reasons. We became big brother to the world in the ’40s, and have remained there, good or bad.
    You, my friend, have quietly done quite a bit to honor our Veterans. I thank you for your efforts. Like you, I will always be proud of our Veterans and I Thank Them, and welcome them home.
    Tony

  4. Stu

    Thank you for this. This attack melted the divide that existed in our country between FDR and the America First crowd. I do not know if the same would be true if it happened today. How would Trump react? The way he has with Covid? Would he call the attack fake news and send Rudy out to say the pictures and accounts were doctored? Think about it. But thank you again for reminding us of the magnificence of Our Greatest Generation and how we pale in comparison

    1. You raise interesting questions, but I think if AMERICA were attacked, he would respond ferociously. He HAS used our military against ISIS and some individuals we do not like.

  5. A beautiful piece on a sad day in our history. I, too, was born before the war (technically, before America entered the war, as the war had been raging in Europe for several years prior). My dad was part of that Greatest Generation, fighting and eventually being captured by the Germans and sitting out the war in a POW camp. If anyone is interested, go to the internet and type in DID YOU KNOW THEY WERE MARINES? and see how many ‘stars’ were Marines and how many of them fought and were injured in WWII. (My biggest surprise was to learn Jonathan Winters was a Marine!) And how many ‘stars’ in Hollywood back in those days made public service films urging the buying of war bonds, or working at canteens serving coffee and donuts to GIs and sailors. I can’t conceive of any of today’s ‘stars’ speaking out for America… with the possible exception of some who speak softly, such as Denzel Washington and Clint Eastwood. Anyway, once again Stu, a very nice piece of nostalgic writing. I am proud to have served, as have two of my four sons. One is still serving — a medical officer (Air Force major) fighting an enemy called Covid.

    1. Thanks for your service. I just happened to see a “enlist” short by “Lt. James Stewart,” who, I think you know, was an active pilot in the war zone and rose to colonel, I think, and remained in the reserve after he resumed his acting career. Many, many stars were in combat.

      1. Jimmy Stewart, from Indiana, Pennsylvania, retired from the Air Force reserve as a brigadier general (one star), the highest rank achieved by any Hollywood personage ever.

  6. I’m glad you made homage to Pearl Harbor day as most newspapers ignored it including your favorite, the Inquirer, I remember the day even though I was only four years old, because of all the talk in the family about it, My uncle was a career Army enlisted man at the time who I remember being at Ft Dix seeing him off to join Pattons army. I also remember the day FDR passed away as it was my 1st holy communion ceremony and the day started out happy and turned very sad as the news reached us. Everyone was crying and if left a profound memory in me. I remember my Grandmother took it he worst. She had two pictures on her wall, FDR and John L. lewis head of he Coalminers. Thanx again for your article.

  7. I agree 100%.I was born in 1946 but have always had more in common with my parents generation than my own.They were people who had much more common sense and worked hard to make this country what it is.They had their flaws but for the most part they were The Greatest Generation.I was drafted in the Viet Nam era but as I get older I feel a strange sadness every time a WW2 vet dies.

  8. Philadelphia, PA

    RE: The greatest generation

    Dear Stu,

    It is fully appropriate to remember Pearl Harbor and to honor the men and women who fought for this country –from the time of the American Revolution onward. We owe them all a debt of gratitude and honored memory. Nor should we forget that it is a dangerous world we live in or the need for preparedness. As a matter of fact I am too young to recall anything of WWII from living experience–but I learned of it all in the 1950s and 1960s. (Do you recall Walter Cronkite and the weekly program, “The Twentieth Century”?)

    Your mention of “the greatest generation” also raised a few thoughts. There are contemporary problems arising from the victors of WWII (us included) who have sometimes afterward been not so humble as the countries defeated in that war. (Consider also other victors, including Russia and China.) The end of WWII produced something of a “new world order,” and more recently that order has been under considerable strain.

    For a generation or more after the Civil War, we also had something of a “greatest generation,” and in historical hindsight we may more easily see that this was not an unmixed blessing. The men, and particularly the officers who fought and won the Civil War were long honored and almost put beyond reproach. The younger generation of politicians who had not served in the war often had great difficulty in competing with the Civil War veterans and heros, and this regardless of the merit of issues. Teddy Roosevelt, who lack the laurels of the Civil War veterans, agitated for war with Spain in 1898 and later led a charge near San Juan Hill –in order to put himself on a more equal footing –subsequently being elected Governor of New York and elected Vice President in 1900. The point is to appreciate that some heroics were deemed necessary in order to effectively compete with that “greatest generation,” which, meanwhile, had really ceased to deal with the country’s deeper problems. They were resting on their laurels but retaining effective power –or the appearance of it. (Senator John Sherman –think “Sherman Antitrust act”– was made Secretary of State under McKinley, for example, though well into his dottage.) Once the Spanish war got underway, he quickly resigned.

    Now, going back to WWII and FDR, we find the “Roosevelt coalition” which long dominated post-war American politics. This was the chief political embodiment of WWII’s “greatest generation.” But that coalition included the conservative Southern Democrats who left for the Republican party at the time of President Nixon. President Carter from Georgia was a one-term President and chiefly not well thought of among Northern Democrats. Afterward, we got another southern Democrat, Mr. Clinton of Arkansas, –who, I think broke, the pattern of the Roosevelt coalition completely –with his “New Democratic” party and neo-liberal policies.

    In spite of all these changes and their effectively disserting the political ideals long associated with FDR, the WWII “greatest generation” has retained power (or its appearance) and often enough blocked the aspirations of those of us who came along later. In effect, we have a new “Gilded Age,” massive and growing inequalities over decades, and many related problems manifesting in broad public discontent –both the Trump-voter and Sanders-voter varieties.

    With all due honor to our veterans, I suspect it is about time to become somewhat more skeptical of WWII’s “greatest generation.” Though only few are left in prominent positions, the myth helps to sustain a pretty rigid establishment –now superannuated.

    H.G. Callaway

    1. Greatest not just because they won the war, but also survived the Great Depression, then returned home to build America into an economic superpower. A combination of achievements.

      1. Philadelphia, PA

        Dear Stu,

        I wonder just where you may see the sources of American over-expansion, endless wars, growing inequalities and economic concentration over decades (the new “Gilded Age”), broad job and economic insecurity for younger people, outrageous drug and medical costs, political discontent, outrageous tuition costs for students and mountains of debt, etc.

        Does this not suggest an overbearing, rigid and self-aggrandizing establishment? (Is not the election and career of Mr. Trump a prominent symptom?)

        Why is it exactly that Philadelphia, in spite of all its advantages, is still the “poorest of the 10 largest cities in the country”? Something to do with 65 years of one-party rule?

        Many question, I know. Sorry. But the post-WWII political settlement seems to have decayed into considerable disorder.

        H.G. Callaway

        1. HAPPY TUESDAY !!!
          H.G.,
          What did we have before the war. Not just America, but the world. How about greed, corruption and mismanagement for three of the biggest reasons of continuous failure worldwide. We didn’t have those problems when everything was ruled by royalty. If you had a problem, your head was no longer attached to your body.
          Tony

          1. Philadelphia, PA

            Dear Clark,

            I’ll go with “greed, corruption and mismanagement” for three of the chiefs characters of any “overbearing, rigid and self-aggrandizing establishment.”

            Are we growing a new aristocracy?

            H.G. Callaway

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