December 7, 1941. Only a few of military age that day remain with us, but some still do. Not long ago, I interviewed a lady alive on that day. She remembers it “as if yesterday.” The day we spoke, she brought it back. The “day that will live in infamy” – when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor – is worth recalling.
When we spoke, she was 100. On December 7, 1941, she and three girlfriends were sharing an evening together with their boyfriends, a dinner in a home. Life was simple, paced, of a nature that allowed slow conversation, getting to know people well, quiet appreciation for the future. They all had an appreciation for peace.
She had been encouraged to go to college, not by her mother but by her father, along with a local minister, and – curiously enough – a Chinese exchange student. China was a free country then, Republic until 1949, tormented by civil war but not Communist.
All this was rather remarkable for a woman – who also counted among her experiences seeing Charles Lindbergh take off from Roosevelt Field in 1927. What many thought insanity, trying to cross the Atlantic in a light plane, she and her father admired. When he survived, her family watched his parade. At 100, she confided “he was cute.”
But on another fateful day – when the Japanese killed 2,403 Americans and plunged our nation into war – many sat at Sunday dinner. They had no suspicion the day would end at war. Much of this psychology – being at peace and expecting peace – rings true today, even with fewer Sunday dinners, less easy conversation and perhaps appreciation. But what happened next surprised me.
When news came over the radio that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, no long discussion ensued, nor any fear in their boyfriends’ voices. Yet none of them had any doubt. America was at war. Immediately, all four boys rose from their seats, dispersing to enlist, prepare, devote themselves to America’s defense. At once? Yes, they were solemn, but all rose from their seats.
She explains how people thought then. This was not bravado or because of who they were with. It was something innate, instinctive, resolute, unhesitating, as if deep within each boy that question – would they fight if needed? – had already been asked and answered.
How old were they? Early 20s. Across the nation, many were teenagers. Freedom – and they knew WWI had been hard on families – was seen as a burden, defending our nation a duty.
They held the conviction to their bones. Did all four boys deploy? Yes, they were all “1A.” What did the girls do? “We all cried, because it was frightening.” What did you personally do? Here, her story takes another unexpected turn. She gave up Cornell, nearly finished with an MS in chemistry – to marry the love of her life, one of those boys, named “Bob.”
What happened… to those boys? Knowing 16 million signed up, 450,000 never came home, war lasted four years, my eyes focused on her. “Well,” she says with a sigh, “they all came home, all married the girls they were with that night, all raised families.”
She was hard-pressed to explain what the day meant. It changed her life forever. It changed everything for everyone forever. America descended into war, war rationing, letters home, unwelcome letters from the War Department, enormous loss, cost, worry, and horror.
She lost respect for Lindbergh, antiwar and by that time an apologist for neutrality. She could not abide that, whatever his prior courage. She notes there are times in life you must stand and be counted. That was one.
Her young husband? He served until it ended. They had more than half a century together, children, grandkids, great grands. Her degree? Never finished, taught elementary school. Yes, December 7, 1941, changed everything. Regrets? Some. Consolations? Yes, “thousands of great grandchildren…,” she laughed, “and a peaceful life in Maine…freedom, friends, family.”
I wanted her perspective on another issue. She had lived so long, wit crisp. Can America survive what buffets us now? She thought about that, but not long. Yes, indeed she is sure – yes.
Does she think young people would rise again? She has great grandchildren, knows their world, watches the news. She admits she does not like the mobile phones, email, loss of focus, faith, or centrality of family. She sees the contrast with her younger days, slower paced with friends. But would they? Yes, they would. If America needed our youth to stand again, she is convinced they would.
Those who know their history, who appreciate freedoms, who pause for a quiet dinner – in short, those who understand how special America is – would again push back rise to defend America. She is clear – and has the perspective few, by definition, have. She believes they would.
Pondering that last observation, durability of patriotism, appreciation for America’s uniqueness, and willingness of the young to stand for freedom, I admit my wonder, sometimes my doubt. Do waters still run that deep? She looks me straight in the eye and lets me know – they do.
She has no doubt. She has lived longer than I have, so perhaps is right. She remembers December 7, 1941, clearly – how young people felt then, how much they knew and did not know, how they loved peace – how they stood at one to defend freedom when threatened.
Yes, it was a day of “infamy” and it “changed everything” for her, for America, and for the world. She agrees it is important not to forget that day…She never has, hopes we will not.
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