Wednesday, December 07, 2011

"A Day that Lives in Infamy": Two Stories.

For my generation, it was where we were when Kennedy was shot.  For later generations, it would be where they were when the Challenger exploded or on 911.  But for those of my parents’ generation, their defining day was December 7th, 1941.  This post contains two stories of where people were at on that day, as Roosevelt defined, that lives in infamy. 

A few years ago I was visiting with my aunt, my mom’s oldest sister, trying to gleam as much information as I could about my mother’s early life.  Unlike a lot of people with Alzheimer’s, my mother never talked much about her childhood and I was curious.  I asked Betty Ann about the attack on Pearl Harbor and how the family heard about it.  Betty Ann said she, along with my mother and their other sister, were cutting through the woods and fields to Beulah Hill Missionary Baptist, where the family worshipped.  As they passed a neighbor’s house, the neighbors yelled for them to come and listen to the news on the radio.  This was an area that didn’t have electricity until after the war, so I assume the radio was battery powered.  I remember my father’s father telling me about them having two batteries for their truck.  One was in the truck charging while the other was used to run the radio.  I asked Betty Ann if they were going to an evening service, but she insisted it was the morning.  I didn’t press the issue even though I knew it had to be later in the day as this was on the east coast and the attacks occurred in Hawaii in the morning (which would have been the afternoon in North Carolina).  So either they were going to an evening service or coming home from a long-winded morning service.

My grandfather had spent most of that fall in High Point, taking a welding class.  The family had been waiting for the Christmas break from school to move to Wilmington, where my granddad had lined up a job building Liberty ships at the new shipyard.  The day before Pearl Harbor, on December 6, the shipyard launched its first ship, the Zebulon B. Vance, named for a former governor of the state.  A few weeks later, my granddaddy and his family joined thousands of other families from farms around the state in a migration to Wilmington where they lived during the war.
John was a man I knew when I lived in Utah and I was proud to call him a friend.   In the late 1930s, he worked for the CCC, and then he joined the Navy.  In the early morning hours of December 7, he along with host of other sailors and soldiers, were feeling pretty good in a dark Gin Mill in Manila, in the Philippines.  “All of sudden,” he said, “the lights were turned up and MPs and SPs were there with their nightsticks drawn, kicking and cussing and knocking us with the sticks, ordering us back to our duty stations.”  The news of Pearl Harbor had just arrived and all American bases were on high alert.  “It was a hell-of-a-way to begin a war,” John later recalled. 

John was assigned to a submarine tender that had a problem with its shaft and was being refitted.  As his ship could only make a few knots an hour, it was decided that they would not try to run the blockade.  Instead, the ship became a machine shop for the Army fighting in the Philippines.  Once the ship was out of supplies and could no longer provide support, it was taken out into the harbor and sunk, in an attempt to keep the Japanese from entering Manila Bay.  The sailors then dyed their navy uniforms to make them camouflaged.  A Marine was assigned to three sailors and they became foot soldiers.  Being Navy, they were evacuated from Bataan before the surrender and fought a few more months from Corregidor, where they surrendered after running out of ammunition.  John spent three and a half years as a POW working as a slave in a coal mine in Japan.  Until his death, ten years ago, he still had nightmares of the horror he endured.  


  1. wow...great stories. I can only imagine the ordeal John went through; how horrifying. thanks for sharing

  2. I think nowadays we err by trying to condense a life living into manageable and mentally digestible narratives. We are the ones that use key events as memory aids, I don't think this was so in the past. And the very near past at that.
    What I mean here is the 911 didn't really happen to us until a few days later when our minds could process it. Well for me anyway. But I can tell you what I did for most of that day. And the same with the Shuttle, I still have the picture of the side rockets in my mind but not the blast itself.
    Jonestown is a bin. Or what was to my kids mind a steel trash can.
    To put it like this, we are asking the wrong question. We are asking how the person encountered the public happening rather than how they met it.

  3. They fought at least for a freedom and not one set of political aims. Either way though the horror of what they all see in combat never leaves. And being a prisoner of the Japanese has a brutal reality that changed them permanently.

  4. Horrifying, as war always is. But important to help keep these stories of your family and friend alive. Well shared, J.

  5. Thanks for these stories. They remind us that everyone carries with them the memories of events, times, and places that too often go untold and would move us to tears if we only knew them.

  6. Thank you for sharing these stories - I can't even imagine what it would be like to be working as a slave like that, never knowing if each day was your last.

    My mother has Alzheimers, too, but still has memories of those days. For her, it also involved hearing the news on the radio after church.

    And my father lied about his age and joined the Navy one day before his 18th birthday, so he could go to war and "see the world." And he did. I always wondered how he got away with the lying about his age - I guess they weren't so fussy about seeing birth certificates and such back then.

  7. Thanks for sharing the stories. Those of us not alive cannot fathom how pissed everyone was on December 8. My dad said that his college's president convened the whole student body to convince them to wait and not enlist en masse. It was a different time.

  8. They endured so much, didn't they? My and my husbands parents rarely voluntarily spoke of their service in the war. It wasn't until after my Mother-in-Law died, I read her notes of that time. We owe them so much.

  9. Wow, your poor friend, Sage. Hearing about history from those who actually lived it is priceless. There are many deep trenches dug in many souls as a result of serving in the military. Bless their hearts, and the hearts of those who love them.

  10. I was born a few days before the war began in Europe and I remember every home seemed to have a photo on the mantel or dresser top of a bright-eyed young man in a crisp new uniform and I would be told that was my cousin so-and-so or that was so-and-so's boy.

    All of them came home, I think. Uncle Ed was a tank sergeant in the Bulge, but if any of the rest of them had war stories I never heard them. Cousin Norman saw newsreels of the Pacific landings and -- though he was exempt from the draft for some minor health problem -- was able to enlist, but his stories were all of highjinks during the Occupation.

    My wife's father was in a pretty scary situation in the northern Pacific, but I had to tease the story out of the records, as he never told the family about it.

    It's too much to explain and you had to be there, and anyway it's over now.

    "Old, forgotten, far-off things,
    and battles long ago."