Seventy-five years ago – Dec. 7, 1941 – was in the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt “a date which will live in infamy,” so named because of the sneak attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor. Most Americans may know the day from the history books as the historical event that prompted the President to declare war and place U.S. soldiers, sailors and marines into direct conflict against the Axis nations of Germany, Italy and Japan.
You’ve got to be at least eighty years old now to have vivid memories of that day and the bloody battles and home front sacrifices that followed.
I was twelve years old and at about two o’clock on that dreary December Sunday was with my brother, who was just a year younger, pestering our dad to hurry up and get the train table set up in our basement. It was a pre-Christmas tradition that dad would put our Lionel trains together on a ping pong sized table he had built.
Mom interrupted that father-and-sons annual event when she yelled down the stairs that the Japanese had attacked Hawaii. My dad stopped what he was doing and yelled something back to mom and we could sense something was wrong.
“Boys,” my dad said. “I think we’re at war.”
My brother Jerry and I reacted shamefully. We hooted and hollered in glee, since war would be exciting and glorious. We only saw soldiers using guns and shooting at the enemy, just like we did almost daily with our neighborhood friends, dodging in and out of bushes and from behind garages in our make-believe skirmishes of “cops and robbers” and “cowboy and Indians.”
My dad was furious, firmly telling us how serious war can be and that people would be killed. Dad had just missed being drafted into the Army in World War I, having been scheduled for induction on Nov. 11, 1918, the day of Armistice for that horrific war. But he knew that tragic events lie ahead.
Jerry and I, along with our youngest brother, Tom, felt the impact of Dec. 7th almost immediately when our bachelor uncle (who had lived with us and helped raise us) learned he was facing re-entry to the Army within weeks. He had been drafted in 1940, but the Pentagon had decided to release draftees over the age of 28 in late November. He had been home only about a week when the bombs fell. He was back in uniform before Christmas and would spend four years in the states and the Philippines before we saw him again.
By April, 1942, the horrors of the war came home to roost; we had seen reports of the Bataan death march when courageous GIs sought to hold out to overwhelming superior Japanese forces only to be captured and put into a long march and starvation. Reports came in of enemy submarines off the coasts of California and New Jersey. In our inland city of Milwaukee, we had regular air raid drills. Dad was made a block warden and was charged with walking around the neighborhood in his hard hat to look for families who may have left a sliver of light break into the darkness. The nation was girding against bombing raids like those on London by German bombs in the Battle of Britain. It was a bleak time.
As the war continued, I continued my junior and senior high school years just as kids had done years before. But things were different with us wartime teenagers. We studied about the war; we saw seniors being drafted before their graduation; we huffed and puffed through gym classes as instructors sought to prepare us for eventual service to our country. The war finally ended in August 1945, just before my junior year. We continued our usual teenage worries about whether the cute blonde girl I admired would agree to be my date for the prom or about how our football team would do against Shorewood. Always the war lurked in the background with such daily realities as limiting our use of the family car because of gas rationing.
More importantly, we couldn’t ignore the news reports, since we knew that unless the fighting didn’t end soon we’d soon be drafted into the thick of it. Some of us also were saddened at the seemingly unnecessary horrors that developed against innocent non-combatants. For me the most horrifying event came with the announcement on Aug. 6, 1945 that the United States – the country that we heralded every morning when we said the Pledge of Allegiance – had dropped the atom bomb with an equivalence of 100 blockbuster bombs on the citizens of Hiroshima. See earlier comment.
With the simple reasoning that rules the teenage mind, we argued that there had to be a way to end to national disputes that usually turned to war. With my two best buddies, we discovered something called United World Federalism. It was the logical answer to ending wars forever. Just as the United States was created into a federal government that controlled the armed forces, why couldn’t the whole world work in the same way, thus taking away from nationalistic governments the tools of war?
The idea briefly had wide appeal in the war’s aftermath with key supporters among a handful of politicians of both parties. As we all know, the dream faded, leaving us with a largely powerless United Nations and giving way to power blocs such as NATO and SEATO.
Today the world is in chaos. Nations are hunkering down into their bunkers and growing more suspicious of each other while terrorists using religious fervor as a recruiting tool threaten all of us.
The answer to some, particularly in the incoming administration, is to arm ourselves to the teeth and to use the weapons as a simplistic way to defeated a supposed enemy. In a way, those people remind me of that afternoon seventy-five years ago when my brother and I strutted around our basement yelling “hooray” because we could turn our playtime soldiering into the real thing.
Even today, I am shamed by our behavior in 1941. The next four years taught me about the senseless horrors of war. Surely, I reasoned, there had to be a better way. – Ken Germanson, Dec. 6, 2016.