Editor’s note: Val Lauder, a former reporter for the Chicago Daily News and lecturer at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, is the author of “The Back Page: The Personal Face of History.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
Let’s remember Pearl Harbor
As we go to meet the foe
Let’s remember Pearl Harbor
As we did the Alamo
We will always remember
How they died for liberty.
Let’s remember Pearl Harbor
And go on to victory.
— Lyrics of a song recorded by big-band leader Sammy Kaye
It was 75 years ago. But I remember.
It was a Sunday afternoon, my senior year in high school. My parents and I gathered around the radio, an old Philco with the arched top, listening to the stunning news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
I think my father was listening to the radio when the station broke in with the news. My mother was probably in the kitchen after Sunday dinner. I was in my room doing homework when they called to me. What I remember — clearly, vividly, testify-to-it-in-court — is the three of us huddled around the radio, trying to take it in. The bolt-from-the-blue event, comparable in our time only to 9/11, that would change life as we knew it.
War was nothing new. But it was always somewhere else, somebody else.
I’d listened to the radio when Poland was invaded. Paris occupied. Dunkirk evacuated. Edward R. Murrow reported from London, bombs falling in the distance. Now they’d fallen on US Navy ships in a place I’d never heard of.
The next day at school we were all buzzing about it. Someone said, and everyone picked it up: “America has never lost a war.” When we walked into American history class after lunch, our teacher said, “Neither has Japan.”
It was in that history class I heard President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s address to a joint session of the US Congress when our school P.A. system piped it into classrooms. The President was asking for a declaration of war, declaring the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.”
Several years later, on a visit to Washington, I went to the National Archives. Up the marble stairway, past the framed copies of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, the walls of the second floor were covered with documents in narrow black frames. I stopped at the typed text of President Roosevelt’s speech to Congress that day. I noticed the text said “a date which will live in history.” History had been crossed out, a word penciled in above: infamy.
According to a one-page, historical footnote by former Times Executive Editor Max Frankel in The New York Times Magazine years later, President Roosevelt had dictated the speech but then felt “history” did not cover the treachery, the heinous nature of the surprise attack.
Infamy does better convey the deed, and toll.
The Japanese attack destroyed or damaged 19 US Navy ships, including eight battleships. It killed 2,403 Americans and wounded 1,178. Civilians weren’t spared, either — 68 were killed.
Not that any of these figures were released at the time — valuable intelligence for the enemy, impact on morale on the home front.
Years later, I chanced upon a fact that is the one I remember today. The seemingly small detail that lingers. A comment by the legendary Chicago Daily News foreign correspondent Robert J. Casey, whom I had the pleasure of knowing when I was at the Daily News. Casey, who had been covering the war in Europe — the Fall of France, Battle of Britain and London Blitz — had turned his professional attention to the Pacific. When he arrived in Pearl Harbor shortly before Christmas (I think I read this in a Daily News Alumni newsletter), he said the smell of burning oil and rubber was still in the air.
That Christmas, I was trying, as was everyone, to cope with the news of another loss — Wake Island, December 23. Then Manila.
The only good news for months came with the Doolittle Raid, April 18, 1942. Sixteen B-25 bombers under the command of Lt. Col. James “Jimmy” Doolittle took off from the USS Hornet aircraft carrier to take the war to the Japanese, bombing Tokyo and military targets in Japan.
One hooray! yahoo! hallelujah! moment in the long dark months.
Bataan fell April 9. Corregidor May 6.
In one of those twists of fate encountered in novels rather than our own lives, the morning of February 1, 1945, when I arrived for work at the Chicago Daily News — I was a copygirl then — I was told not to go to my usual post, but to a desk where I would receive the names of the men who had just been freed from a Japanese prisoner of war camp, the men taken prisoner when Bataan and Corregidor fell. The names were being released as they were obtained and needed to be put in alphabetical order. I cut The Associated Press copy into strips and put the names in order. All morning and well into the afternoon. On my way home that night, I read The Associated Press story on the men rescued, the first glimpse of the horrors of the Bataan Death March.
When a copyboy dropped off copies of the latest edition at the city desk a few weeks later, I saw the picture of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima — page one, front and center. No missing it. News stories documented the bloody struggle. So bloody the US Marine deaths on Iwo Jima were one-third of all Marine deaths in World War II.
One day I was told to go to the Daily News library — it was no longer called the morgue; that was an earlier time — to get the clips on Ernie Pyle, the beloved war correspondent killed by a machine-gun near Okinawa.
The war was always there.
Perhaps I remember so much because I’m part of “the greatest generation,” on the young side, granted, military service aside. Those who did serve are passing at a rate that has been the subject of a number of stories. Whether someone served on the front lines or kept the home fires burning, each passing reduces the number to remember, to talk about these things, write about them.
Without that, the events, like the memories, fade with the years, as surely as the wallpaper that gets full afternoon sun.
The song “Let’s remember Pearl Harbor” was played so often I could — fudging just a few of the lyrics — sing it for you today.
I only had to Google precise dates and the number and type of planes in the Doolittle Raid for this story.
I’m not a military historian. I don’t bury myself in libraries, doing research on battles — air, land, or sea. But I’ve been interested in what goes on in the world since I can remember, enhanced and polished by years in the newspaper business or its environs. And, perhaps, the impact — on my world, our world — of that long ago Sunday.
December 7, 1941.
The date which will live in infamy.
The Sunday morning Japanese bombs rained down on US battleships and cruisers and destroyers. Torpedoes sped toward them. Machine-gun fire raked the decks.
The USS Arizona may be a beautiful memorial today. But 1,102 of the 1,177 sailors and Marines killed on the USS Arizona that Sunday are entombed below its decks. And, each day, up to nine quarts of oil rise to the surface from the submerged wreckage. It is sometimes referred to as the “tears of the Arizona,” or “black tears.”