BY EDWIN E. VINEYARD
December 7, 1941, was indeed a day “which will live in infamy.” At least, it has always been so for one who was a lad of 15 at the time in a small town in eastern Oklahoma. It has always been one of those few highlights in a life about which a generation asks one another, “Where were you when you first heard of the bombing of Pearl Harbor?” Or perhaps, for our generation, one might also ask, “What were you doing when you first heard the assassination of President Kennedy?
Those were the most memorable moments in the common lives of those of us who have reached the status of octogenarian. Our lives cover the better part of a century, and those events stand out above all others. Not that we were oblivious to 9/ll, to D-Day, or the dropping of the first atom bomb. But those two events are special among all those other significant events.
Emerging from the depths of the Great Depression, those of us in what Tom Brokaw has called [for want of a better term] “the greatest generation” went from 10 years growing up in a period of overwhelming economic stress on our families into another period of five years of sacrifices involving life itself. Many of us lost family members in war, then spent the remainder of our parents’ lives feeling with them a continuing, never-ending process of grief. This writer lost a brother in a B-24 Liberator bomber in Italy on December 20, 1944.
On Sunday, December 7, 1941, this 15-year-old high school student in Wilburton, Oklahoma, was working at the local theatre. Hearing excited voices outside the door, he went out to encounter another young person, breathlessly shouting to our snack shop operator and everyone in sight, “The Japs attacked Pearl Harbor!”
This individual had come from the ice cream and “juke joint” a couple of doors east. He was followed by a couple more, one carrying a portable radio the size of a present day “boom box,” placing it on the concession counter. By this time people inside the theater heard the commotion and came streaming out excitedly wanting to know what was going on. Two or three would then shout, “The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor! We are in war!”
Most of us were glued to the radio in all our spare time for the next few days, anxious for news. At school, we listened to President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech in which he called on Congress to recognize that a “state of hostilities exists” and declare war. Declaration of war against Germany and Italy followed, after they first declared an axis of alliance with Japan in war against us.
This writer’s older brother was already in the U.S. Air Force. The older brothers of others were soon joining or being called to service. A good friend had a brother captured on Bataan in the Philippines, and in the “Death March” when the Japanese brutally slaughtered thousands of our men. Bordered red and white posters with a blue star began appearing in the windows of homes in town. Not long after a few gold stars appeared.
At school many of us followed the progress of the war carefully. This writer was requisitioned from school as a “volunteer” worker in the issuance of hundreds of ration books to local families for items such as food and gasoline. He participated in a student panel formed by the school superintendent that appeared before civic clubs and others to discuss war movements and strategies [as if we knew]. Perish the thought, but I was a teen-aged pundit.
For a number of us, our greatest concern was that we would not finish high school in time to get into the war before it was over. Several of our classmates volunteered while under age and went off to war. Two had been lost before our class graduated. Friends were moving with their families to California, or other hubs of industry, to work in the war effort. There were various shortages, with the common explanation, “It’s the war, you know.”
This writer, while a high school junior, worked nights in charge of the railroad station. He kept the depot open and met the night passenger, express, and mail train scheduled for a little after nine o’clock, but more commonly arriving around midnight or later. “It’s the war, you know.”
Not feeling particularly patriotic, but more out of a sense of long awaited duty, this writer joined the U.S. Navy at age 17 – the summer following graduation from high school. That was not unusual. Other friends delayed slightly, but were soon drafted not long after passing 18. It was a pleasure to welcome some new “boots” to the San Diego training station a few months later in the role of an “old salt.”
This generation emerged from the darkest, most dismal, stressful period of this nation’s economic history and with considerable bravado immediately took up the battle to save the world from fascism. Only our leaders at the time knew how bad the war looked after Pearl Harbor. The odds at that time were heavily against this nation. Next best to victory would have been an unacceptable result with America isolated and alone in a world dominated by the evil axis of Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo, and their respective nations.
But this nation rallied militarily and industrially, and with an attitude of bravado best typified by Spike Jones’ music, “Right in the Fuehrer’s Face” and our carnival games of throwing the ball at images of Hitler or Tojo, we went off to save the world.
As Walter Cronkite used to say, “And, that’s the way it was.”
– Dr. Edwin E. Vineyard, AKA The Militant Moderate, lives in Enid, OK and is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer