The Pearl Harbor visitors center has a map of the world inlaid into the sidewalk. Its big enough to walk around, yet small enough to absorb.
When we visited in December, I watched my father stand somewhere in the middle of the Coral Sea, while another, older Japanese man straddled the Philippines.
The map makes a not-so-subtle point: Hawaii is right in between Japan and the U.S. It makes it clear why the war started here.
You could tell they were both veterans. It’s one of the things you don’t anticipate, that there are so many veterans visiting the memorial. And so many from both sides.
They aren’t hard to spot. It’s partly age, but also demeanor and dress. My father wore a cap with the name of the destroyer he served on, the USS Watts.
When we boarded the small boat that ferries visitors to the USS Arizona memorial, the sailors saluted my father. He thanked them and noted their Navy uniforms had changed since he wore one. They laughed.
I’d seen pictures of the iconic memorial many times, but had always assumed it was a portal to some larger museum. I didn’t realize its just one room, open to the air, that sits atop the battleship.
It was designed by Alfred Preis, an Austrian Jew who fled the Nazis. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was put in an internment camp for German Americans. His design, initially criticized, is now the most visited site in Hawaii.
From the memorial you can see a thin, translucent slick of oil on the water. It’s been seeping out of the wreck for 79 years. Everyone notices it. It has the weird effect of connecting you to the past. The Park Service estimates that it could leak for another 500 years.
There were 1,177 sailors from the Arizona killed during the attack. Of the 335 who survived, more than 40 have chosen to return and be interred on the wreck. There are only three men still living.
At the time of the attack my father was a sophomore at Columbia High School in South Orange, New Jersey.
On the morning of Dec 7th, a friend, Frank Baldwin, called to offer him two tickets to a concert at Frank Dailey’s Meadowbrook, a club in Cedar Grove. Gene Krupa’s orchestra was playing. Dad invited Betty Griffinger, a girl who lived across the street.
Part way through the concert the announcer interrupted with an announcement: “The Empire of Japan has attacked the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands,” my father recalls him saying.
With that, the band struck up the national anthem and everyone left.
The next day, the entire student body was summoned to the auditorium. A radio was placed on stage. They listened to President Roosevelt address the nation live.
You can look up Roosevelt’s drafts of the speech. In the first copy, FDR describes Dec. 7th as a “a date which will live in world history.”
Then he crossed it out and scribbled: “infamy.”
Life changed immediately. Dad said that the houses at the shore put up heavy drapes to block out light and cars painted the top half of their headlights so they wouldn’t be seen by U-boats off the coast.
When he told me that, it seemed crazy and overly dramatic.
But many years later, we had a neighbor who lived three doors down who had been on a German U-boat during the war. He said they patrolled the coast off New Jersey.
It’s strange and unsettling how people can go to war, viscerally hate their enemy, and then find themselves living down the street a few decades later.
I traveled to Vietnam twenty years after the “fall of Saigon” only to find the Vietnamese had little time to remember what they call the “American War.”
The country has engaged in six major conflicts in the meantime. The infamous Hanoi Hilton prison that housed John McCain was being demolished to build a movie theater.
One year before my visit, a former American military officer, Lt. Colonel Hal Moore, returned to the site of a famous battle in the Ia Drang Valley.
He met with Lt. Gen Nguyen Huu An, the Vietnamese commander he fought in 1965. They pored over maps and walked the battlefield.
No one was trying to kill anyone anymore. They were trying to understand what happened.
The U.S. is currently engaged in a decades-long conflict in Iraq, but I suspect the same thing will happen. Thirty years from now the American marines who fought in Fallujah will be going there as tourists.
From the longer lens of history few of these places will be remembered, just like fewer and fewer people visit the battlefields of World War I. People still go to Normandy, but that is still in living memory.
When you search the Internet for “Famous Battles in Iraq” you find, among other things, the top 10 list includes the campaign of Sargon the Great in 2300 BC and an account of King Shalmaneser defeating Shattura II of Hangialbat in 1263.
So much of life is timing and luck.
The seniors who graduated from Columbia High School in 1942 went right into the military. Two of the members of the class of ’43 who my father knew, Bob Vogel and Fred Lang, were killed in the Battle of the Bulge.
My dad entered the service two years later, just missing combat.
He does remember how food and gas were rationed. How his mother couldn’t get chocolate chips to make cookies. How his family was allocated three gallons of gas a week. How you no longer just drove around, you went to specific places.
My father studied at Cornell for two semesters until he was 18 and could enlist. When he went to the recruiting office in Newark he discovered he was color blind. The chief petty officer helped him memorize the chart so he could pass the test. He signed up for the Navy.
Dad was sent to learn to operate and maintain radios. He was in Monterrey California when the U.S. dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. He said they couldn’t believe one bomb destroyed a whole city. It was amazing to them.
A year later, in August 1946, my father was discharged from the Navy. You couldn’t call home easily so without alerting his family he took a train from Los Angeles to Newark and then another to Allenhurst, at the Jersey shore.
He carried a big seabag with all his belongings and walked the mile to the beach club where he knew his parents would be on an August afternoon. When he arrived, his father was in the middle of a shuffleboard tournament.
The visit to Pearl Harbor reminded me how little I knew about the war in the Pacific so I started reading articles and watching YouTube videos.
I made the mistake of watching the movie Midway. It’s God awful. I probably should have been warned by the common Google search: “Is the new Midway movie any good?”
I did learn two things from the film. First, the Americans had a big edge during the war because they broke the Japanese code. Second, that Isoroku Yamamoto, the head of the Japanese navy who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, took classes at Harvard and worked in Washington for two years.
Yamamoto, it turns out, was a super interesting guy. He is sometimes compared to Robert E. Lee, a reluctant warrior who, once engaged, fought brilliantly and in vain. He understood the advantages the U.S. would enjoy in terms of men and material and knew Japan had to strike an early, critical blow.
Yamamoto had to push hard to persuade the rest of the Japanese military to pursue the attack on Pearl Harbor. So, while the war between Japan and America was likely inevitable, the specific attack on Pearl Harbor was not.
Hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japan attacked the Philippines, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore, underscoring the audacity of the plan.
The Japanese were so confident of victory that in early 1942 they drew up a list of demands they would present should the Americans sue for peace.
The mood changed in May 1942 after the U.S. slowed the Japanese advance in the battle of the Coral Sea. After the battle of Midway Island in June, Japan was put on the defensive for the rest of the war.
At that point Yamamoto would have known the tide had turned.
In less than a year, Yamamoto would be killed in a targeted assassination. American intelligence officers had intercepted messages with his flight plans. They dispatched more than a dozen P-38 fighters to shoot him down.
The Americans, not known for subtlety, named the project Operation Vengeance.
A Japanese rescue team scouted the jungle on Bougainville Island and found his body. He had been ejected from the plane but was still strapped into his seat, wearing white gloves and holding a ceremonial Katana.
Almost 80 years later, the wreckage of the plane is still decomposing in the jungle. Periodically people trek out to visit. Someone posted a video on YouTube in 2015. One comment noted wryly that the group drove there in a Toyota .
The American pilot who shot down Yamamoto was Rex T. Barber. He flew a total of 139 missions before he was shot down over China. He was rescued and eventually returned to his hometown of Culver, Oregon,
Barber spent the next 40 years selling insurance.
He also served as mayor and a judge before he died in 2001. In 2003, the state legislature named a bridge over a highway after him.
Pearl Harbor would continue to play a role in my fathers life.
On the same day, twenty-two years after the attack, he proposed to my mother.
He said he choose Dec. 7 to make it easier to remember.
After all, not every date lives in “infamy.”