My Link to Pearl Harbor

December 7, 2003 | 3 comments
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On December 7, 1941, my father was 16 years old. His life would change forever on that day. Shortly after President Roosevelt told the nation about the “day that shall live in infamy,” my father entered the Navy. He fought on an aircraft carrier in the South Pacific, but don’t ask him about it. Even 60 years later he cannot tell his stories. He is a great storyteller, unless the stories are about war. The few times I have seen him try, he has broken down in tears. These are the only times I have seen my father cry.

I was born in a Naval hospital in Bremerton, Washington in 1962, and I spent my first six years in San Diego, where my father taught teletype repair at the Naval school. (Nowadays, he works on computers.) My earliest memories often involve events on the Naval Base, where I could visit my father at work.

Perhaps the most poignant memory of my early childhood, however, involves me and my mother standing at a bus stop in Wisconsin, waiting for my father. He had been gone for a very long time on a cruise around the world. When he left, he charged my mother with moving the family from San Diego to wherever she wanted. He was retiring from the Navy with his pension, and they had decided that California was definitely not the place for our family. She didn’t know where to go, other than to find his brother, who would offer our family of four children a place to stay. If I recall correctly, we stayed in a camper trailer on my uncle’s front lawn and waited for my father. My uncle lived on a farm just outside of Osseo, Wisconsin.

After weeks of this, my father was finally coming home. So were many other servicemen. As each one stepped onto the pavement from the bus, I asked my mother, “Is that him? Is that him?” A few times, I thought that she was mistaken, but I wasn’t sure. I really didn’t remember what he looked like. When he finally came off the bus, I had tired of asking my mother, and she needed to prompt me. I ran to him and received one of those enormous hugs that only a father can give.

My father was not the stereotypical military father. He was not particularly strict, though he did have a strong sense of discipline. He also knew right from wrong, and made of point of teaching that distinction. As you might imagine, he was fiercely patriotic, and a good deal of that has rubbed off.

Every year on December 7, my parents would remind me of Pearl Harbor Day, in the same way that I will always tell my children about 9/11. I didn’t know many of the details — still don’t, as learning about war does not interest me — but I knew that this day was important to them. It was one of the few truly religious holidays in my home. They told me about listening to President Roosevelt on the radio. They told me about being scared. Of course, they both felt fear more personally after my father entered the service, but there must be something quite indelible about one’s first encounter with war.

I am not sure about my parent’s being “The Greatest Generation,” but there is something about them that I have not been able to replicate in my own character. It’s hard to describe with a single word, like honor or dignity, but I connect this feeling about them to December 7. Perhaps this “something” is their sense of satisfaction at having participated in something that changed the world. They are not ambitious. They have lived good lives. Whatever that indefinable something is, I am grateful for parents who have it, and I am grateful for December 7, when I can be reminded of the feeling.

[Cross-posted at Venturpreneur]

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3 Responses to My Link to Pearl Harbor

  1. Adam Greenwood on December 7, 2003 at 9:24 pm

    Thanks for your post, Gordon. You reminded me of my grandfather, who fought at Okinawa and kept his mouth shut about it. He had deep flaws but also great character.

    Good-bye, good men.

  2. Jim on December 7, 2003 at 10:49 pm

    I was raised in a military family and was lucky enough to be able to move to each of my father’s duty posts but once. I graduated from a high school sponsored by the Department of Defense and a large number of those who graduated with me went on to military careers; a number are now generals. But almost none of the people I knew in the armed forces were stereotypically patriotic, my father included. He didn’t believe in “my country, right or wrong.” But he did believe in doing his duty and keeping his word, a trait common to those he worked with. He was adamant about the importance of the Constitution and of civilian control of the military, even though–as I think is at this time more than obvious–one can usually trust the judgment of the military more than you can trust the judgment of politicians. “Usually” is the reason he felt strongly about civilian control. Anyway, I think that much of my own thinking about the United States, its constitution, and patriotism come straight from my father. It isn’t what sometimes passes for patriotism, but it is something quite valuable that many my father’s age were justifiably proud of and something we should emulate.

  3. Paul on December 8, 2003 at 3:15 pm

    My grandfather was on a ship on his way to invade Japan when they surrendered. Like Adam’s grandfather, he too was a deeply flawed man, but a great man nontheless. He hated talking about the war other than to say how grateful he was to Truman for dropping the bomb and ending the war. When the Korean war hit, he left my dad and his wife and went to war again. This time however, he played basketball for two years. Up until the day he died he prayed at every meal for the soldiers and their families. This was significant to me because he was not active in the church and not religious at all. I have no problem calling his generation “the greatest generation.”