The Dec. 7 anniversary of the 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor will be remembered in history alongside the South Carolina secessionists' shelling of Fort Sumter and the terrorist events of 9/11/2001. It marked a wrenching turning point in our history, the effects of which are still being felt.
It also marks, this year, the further disappearance of the Greatest Generation heroes who fought the war for us. Former Sen. and presidential candidate George McGovern, who piloted the maximum 35 bomber missions over Europe, died only recently. Former President George H.W. Bush, shot down in his dive bomber and rescued from the Pacific, and former Senate Majority Leader and presidential candidate Bob Dole, wounded gravely as an enlisted infantryman in Italy, were admitted for hospital treatment during the past week. All were decorated for valor during their service, as were many others.
For my own generation, who were kids during World War II, there are many flash memories of the time. I was 7 when Pearl Harbor happened, 11 when the war ended in 1945.
My dad, an unskilled Bellingham sawmill worker, always brought home at Christmas a box of Japanese tangerines — until 1941, when they disappeared from the market. We walked to downtown Bellingham on Dec. 7 to see a Sunday movie matinee at the American Theater on Cornwall Avenue. It was an unseasonably balmy, clear-sky day. When we returned home, my mother met us at the front door. "The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor," she told us. "We're at war." Dad, charcteristically, said "Maybe now we'll take out Hitler." (Dad hated Hitler for occupying his native Netherlands and for his atrocities against Jews and other minorities.)
As it happened, of course, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor did not mean we were at war with Germany. That happened a short time later, when Hitler declared war on us.
I experienced the time just as most of my schoolmates did. After the war began, both my parents began six-days-a-week, nine-hours-a-day schedules at their workplaces. We had no automobile but, for those who did, there was gas rationing which sharply limited mobility. There was an immediate fear that Japanese planes might launch air raids on West Coast cities — although that, at the time, was a technological impossibility. Every neighborhood had an air-raid warden and every home in Bellingham had a box of sand and a shovel on hand, with a posted notice above telling what to do in the event of a raid. Night sports and other events were cancelled, lest their lights be a beacon to Japanese planes or submarines. All nearby beaches were closed; some had obstacles against invasion. Our First Christian Church, just down the street, became a barracks for soldiers who marched in formation each morning past our doorway. We went to double Daylight Saving Time. Clocks were moved up two hours — which meant it was light outside on summer nights until nearly 11 p.m.
At grade school we regularly bought War Savings Stamps, to help pay for the war, and filled coupon books with them. On a more important level, neighbors' sons (and a few daughters) volunteered or were drafted for military service. A majority were sent to the Pacific war theater.
There was no way to escape the war on the homefront. There was no television. But black-and-white films — some quite good (and being shown now on Turner Classic Movies) — and regular radio broadcasts and movie newsreels kept us immersed in the war. War posters were everywhere, exhorting us to support the troops, zip our lips (lest spies pickup useful information) and buy War Bonds. Others encouraged women to join the service or to take defense-factory jobs. Darker ones portrayed Japanese troops, in particular, as primitive, bestial figures with blood on their mouths and hands.
There were almost no Japanese Americans in Bellingham. But, down the Sound, they were rounded up and sent to internment camps. (Millions of German Americans, mainly living in the East and Midwest, were not similarly interned). Patriotic Japanese Americans volunteered for military service and were sent from their internment camps to training centers and, then, to Europe. Among them was Hawaii U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, who fought as an enlisted infantryman in Italy and lost his arm in battle. Inouye, in later years, would recount his unit's reaction when they learned of the death of President Franklin Roosevelt on April 12, 1945. His company had been attempting to seize a German strong point up a hillside, Inouye said, but heavy fire had pinned them down. Someone passed the word that FDR had died. A spontaneous yell went up: "Let's do it for the chief!" And so, Inouye said, they fixed bayonets and rushed and took the strong point, although taking casualties. "No one questioned our loyalty that day," he added.
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