A Yankee Notebook

December 7, 2015


MONTPELIER – I’m writing this on a clear, frosty Monday morning. The desk calendar under the keyboard shows that it’s a date that, according to our then-President, “will live in infamy.”  But except for the notation on the calendar that it’s “Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day,” and the photos that shortly will be posted online – it’s not morning there yet – of men in their nineties with glistening eyes, wearing decorated garrison caps, stiffly saluting the flag flying over the USS Arizona memorial, I sense little excitement or outrage among my fellow citizens.

That’s as it should be, I suppose. The passions excited by the attack have long since faded, and the colonial and imperial ambitions of both combatants have been largely shelved. Those of us who remember, but were too young at the time to enlist in the armed forces, are now following into oblivion those who weren’t too young. Like those who served, however, many of us will never forget the spirit that animated us, the sacrifices almost everybody made, and the victory that our nation, against apparently impossible odds on opposite sides of the world, finally achieved.

Chancellor Hitler of Germany, believing that Japan, after destroying our battleships in Pearl Harbor, would make short work of the United States, declared war on us on December 11. The United States, already officially at war with Japan, responded in kind to Germany, and mobilization began. Our armed forces were small, but we weren’t entirely blind-sided. In anticipation of hostilities, Congress had already, in 1940, enacted the first peacetime conscription in our history. All men between 21 and 35 had been required to register with their local draft boards. After the war broke out, the eligible age for conscription was lowered to 18. and the maximum age for registration raised to 65. I remember my father showing me his draft card. He was completely deaf, so should have been 4-F (ineligible); but he was also a clergyman and for some reason pushed to be classified 3-D. There was apparently some stigma attached to being 4-F – a classification that became ambivalent during the Korean War and much coveted during the Vietnam War.

Not many military strategists of that period realized how inauspicious Japan’s timing of its attack had been, much less its effects. Typically, it had been urged by what we nowadays call “chicken hawks,” armchair warriors with inadequate appreciation of the unintended consequences of full-scale military operations. Pearl Harbor, slumbering in relative peace in mid-ocean, seemed a perfect target, full of warships securely moored. It was a classic example of military leaders still fighting old wars. Battleships, difficult to defend against aerial and submarine attacks, were on their way out; this new war would rely heavily on aircraft carriers.   Apparently by chance, the United States carrier fleet was at sea on December 7. If it had been moored at Pearl Harbor, the outcome of the war would ultimately have been the same, but it would have been years farther away. Even Japanese Admiral Yamamoto, the Harvard-educated commander of the Japanese Pacific fleet, contemplated the effects of the attack (which he had opposed) and said, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”  Events proved him prescient.

My parents, sister, and I were at Grandma Lange’s house for Sunday dinner when the news came about Pearl Harbor. (Coincidentally, that’s the same place we were when the Korean War started.)  We lived in Albany, New York, and I was in the first grade. Albany, at the head of an estuary, considered itself a tempting target, and went into security mode: barbed-wire fences, patrolling soldiers in combat boots and helmets, and within a few weeks, air raid drills. In school, we squeezed under our desks for the drills; at night, when the wailing sirens sounded, we turned off all our lights and listened for the drone of airplane engines. None ever came, but we did see in our newspaper the grainy photographs of burning tankers off the coast of New Jersey.

We often hear the word, “patriot,” these days. It no longer implies what it did then. To be patriotic then meant to keep your eyes peeled and your mouth shut, to conserve and contribute everything possible – household lard, metal (from razor blades to automobiles), newspapers, rags, waste oil. Civilians were called the Home Front. We kids collected ripe milkweed pods for making life preservers in the absence of tropical kapok. If memory serves me right, we collected three dollars for a bushel, a bonanza in those days. We toughened our young muscles by handling 50-pound bundles of bound newspapers. We bought ten-cent defense stamps in school and pasted them into books redeemable, when full, for $25 war bonds.

Gasoline, sugar, butter, and meat were rationed, and cost a certain number of ration stamps or little colored fiber tokens along with the purchase price. Each automobile displayed a large letter showing the ration status of the car’s owner. City buses halved the number of stops they made. Defense posters appeared everywhere; the most memorable was of the body of a young sailor washed onto a beach, with the legend, “Somebody Talked.”  A clever postal invention called V-Mail allowed a serviceman to cram thousands of words onto a single page that then folded up for free mailing. The writer left the flap unsealed so military censors could ensure no damaging secrets were revealed. My uncle once wrote that he’d run into one of the Whiteflake kids from up on Emburgh Avenue in Albany. Translation: He was in Luxembourg. You can’t imagine the relief, unless you were alive then, at the announcement of unconditional surrender of all the Axis powers.

It would be fatuous to claim that our internal struggles were nullified by the war effort; “temporarily stifled” would be a better way to put it. But when I consider the stature of the men who led us – Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Marshall – and that of those who would lead us today, and the issues they argue about, I find it hard not to be pessimistic about the future of this great republic.

Photo by Willem lange