There are certain events in your life that stand out above all the others. Hurricane Hazel, the assassination of President Kennedy, the destruction of the World Trade Center are events I remember vividly. Then, of course, there was Pearl Harbor. That was an event that turned our world upside down.
In 1940 and 1941 America watched as more and more nations were drawn into the maelstrom of war. The Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union ended in early 1940, but shortly afterwards Finland’s neighbor Norway fell to the Germans; and then the Wehrmacht unleashed its power against Holland, Belgium and France. After the defeat of France, the German air force hammered Great Britain, and for some months thereafter invasion of the British Isles appeared imminent. Our family along with many Americans listened on short wave to Churchill’s flaming rhetoric as he hurled his defiance at the Germans. And who can forget those sober words from Edward R. Murrow as he began his nightly broadcasts during the aerial blitz of the British capital. “This is London.”
But the war was just beginning. British and Italian troops were fighting for control of North Africa, and the Japanese continued their seemingly interminable campaign in China. In the spring of 1941 the Germans charged into the Balkans, overrunning Yugoslavia and Greece; and they also sent troops to North Africa, eventually driving the British back to El Alamein in Egypt. Then, on June 22, 1941, the Germans turned with full force against their erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union.
During all this time, life continued more or less as before in the United States, except that, with the growing threat of war, we instituted the draft and started building an army. We had a long way to go. On January 1, 1940, our army was smaller than that of a third-class European state. In December 1941 we were still far from ready for war.
On the first Sunday in December 1941, after services at the Carolina Beach Community Church, Dad, Mom, and I drove to Wilmington, North Carolina, to see a movie. That was a bit unusual for us, but the film was a Charlie Chaplin production called “The Great Dictator”, one of Chaplin’s rare motion picture appearances since his silent film classics. I can recall some parts of the movie, especially the comedic scenes in the beginning, but the most memorable moment of that day came when we stepped out of the theater. As we walked to our car we saw some friends sitting in their parked automobile listening to their radio. They told us that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Like most Americans, I didn’t know where Pearl Harbor was, but we soon found out.
It is hard to describe the reaction of the average citizen to this news. I believe the general feeling was one of astonishment. How could the Japanese have the nerve to do this? To many of us it seemed the equivalent of a pigmy attacking an elephant with a bamboo spear. We were very arrogant in our attitude toward the Japanese and seriously underestimated their capabilities. It turned out that the pigmy had a solid steel tip on the end of that spear, and he did a considerable amount of damage before the elephant could react. Nevertheless, few Americans had any serious doubts about the eventual outcome.
A few days after Pearl Harbor, Italy and Germany declared war on the United States, and America was now fully engaged in World War II.
During the next three years and nine months the United States was transformed from a peaceful giant to the most powerful nation on earth. Our soldiers, sailors, and airmen fought and died from the far reaches of the Pacific, to Africa, and on the ancient battlefields of Europe. Finally, with much sacrifice of blood and treasure, we and our allies were totally victorious.
Yes, those who were more than four or five years old at that time will never forget Pearl Harbor.