Pearl Harbor…Revisited…Again

I was nearly a decade away from even being a glimmer in my parent’s eyes when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred on December 7, 1941, so I have no true remembrances of the “Day Which Will Live in Infamy”. My remembrances come from listening to my father and his buddies talking, history books, documentaries, and movies.

My father, a single, twenty-five-year-old at the time, did what many patriotic young men did and with several friends headed to the Marine recruitment center to join up…only to find out he was 4F due to a birth defect he didn’t even know he had. Determined, he attempted to enlist in the Navy and Army but was turned down.

Two years later, the now-married twenty-Seven-year-old, would receive a letter that might have begun “Greetings, your friends and neighbors….” Drafting a married, twenty-seven year-old missing an entire row of ribs and vertebrae they attached to should tell you how dire the situation was in late 1943.

My Father, a mechanic, was eventually assigned to amphibious assault teams training in Carrabelle, Florida.  Later he would join MacArthur in time to assault the Philippines, Okinawa, and finally would step ashore on mainland Japan as a part of the occupation force.  I wish I knew more but his military records were destroyed in a fire at the National Personnel Records Center (NPRC) in St. Louis, Missouri.

I remember sitting as a family in front of our black and white television on a Sunday evening, December 3, 1961. Walter Cronkite was the narrator of the CBS documentary program, The Twentieth Century. On this night, the Sunday prior to the fifteenth anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, we sat as a family watching and listening.

The episode was “The Man Who Spied on Pearl Harbor” and Cronkite’s distinctive voice narrated the black and white action scenes, some made as the attack occurred, most staged for propaganda use during the war itself, as we remembered Pearl Harbor…and as I remember that night in 1961.

Over the years my thirst for knowledge about Pearl Harbor and my father’s war has caused me to read, watch or listen to almost every available documentary, book, movie, or interview about Pearl Harbor specifically and World War Two generally. Thankfully, I had access to the History Channel when it aired programs about history rather than programing about Alaskan truck drivers or pawn shops. I continue to remember Pearl Harbor, the men who lived it, died during the attack, the ships that were sunk, some later resurrected…and my father who was thousands of miles away at the time.

Many of my father’s friends served and I remember their visits. Stories told around a dining room table.  Older men, cigarette smoke swirling toward the ceiling, coffee left to get cold as they talked. Like many veterans of any wars their stories didn’t focus on death and violence but on humor and comradery. 

One story even involved my mother.  She did her patriotic duty working in a munitions plant.  If one of my father’s friends was to be believed, sitting in rain filled foxholes with artillery shells were being fired over their heads at unseen Japanese positions in the Philippines, one landed short and didn’t explode.  My somewhat taciturn father was quoted to have said, “That must have been one of Eldora’s.”

I have never outgrown my interest in World War Two movies seen repeatedly over again, especially those taking place in the Pacific Theater, the theater my father said he didn’t fight in.

“What did you do in the war, Daddy?”

“Son, I was so far away from the fighting the nurses went in before we did.” His admission did not deter my interest…or my pride.

My favorite movies and stories were those involving Pearl Harbor on the periphery, not quite the center stage like “Tora, Tora, Tora”. Instead, it was  Fred Zimmerman’s “From Here to Eternity”, John Ford’s “They Were Expendable”, and my absolute favorite, Otto Preminger’s “In Harm’s Way”.

A line from “in Harm’s Way” has always stuck in my head.  It was uttered by Henry Fonda  portraying Admiral Chester Nimitz, “On the most exalted throne in the world, we are seated on nothing but our own arses.” Good words to remember whether at war or sitting in your recliner.

The featured image I used is a colorized picture of the iconic USS Arizona burning after the attack.  I met a survivor of the attack in the late Seventies.  A career Navy man he had “joined” up after the War to End All Wars as an eighteen-year-old and served for thirty years.  He served in dozens of Pacific stations from China to San Diego.  One of those ports was in Pearl Harbor on board the USS Arizona.

Among his many duties was manning an anti-aircraft gun should there be an attack.  He never got the opportunity.  Providence intervened that day.  Off duty, he met a friend ashore and watched helplessly as 1,177 of his shipmates and his ship were sent to glory.  Despite the life he was able to live…to create, he never quite forgave himself for surviving.

As I’ve gotten older and a bit of a peacenik, I find myself watching less the movies about the valor and courage of our fighting men and more about the periphery, the politics, our own cruelties…which are simply the cruelties of war itself.

I hope we continue to “Remember Pearl Harbor” and the generation characterized by Tom Brokaw as the “Greatest Generation”. We need to remember the sacrifices they made in our last righteous war before the concepts of good versus evil became so blurred during the Cold War and in the Middle East.

For more of Don Miller’s unique views of life, humor, and Southern stories of a bygone time, try http://goo.gl/lomuQf

GROWING UP WITH MUHAMMAD ALI

I really didn’t actually grow up with Muhammad Ali. I just grew up during his time. He was born in Kentucky, I in South Carolina but for some reason I was drawn to his charisma when he was still billed as Cassius Clay. Sometimes I was drawn to him for some not so nice reasons. I remember first seeing him on a small, fuzzy, black and white TV when he won Olympic gold in 1960. This was before he became the “brash” legend and self-proclaimed “The Greatest” who swaggered his way to the 1964 Heavyweight Championship over the “big, ugly bear” Sonny Liston. In the rural South where I lived he was not the “much loved” Muhammad Ali.

In the middle Sixties, the teenaged me was still drinking a bitter brew of white supremacy, American Exceptionalism and Cold War rhetoric that included slogans like “I’d rather be dead than red.” It would be a decade before I would come to the realization that I might be living IN a lie. I remember the disparaging remarks from my peers along with adults I knew and those I didn’t, and yes from myself. When Ali changed his name from Clay, adopted Islam, called out people about race and then nailed his coffin shut by refusing induction into the army many people were more than just a bit critical. After all, had our idol, Elvis Pressley, not seen his duty and done it? Here was this “mouthy colored boy” refusing to go fight the Reds in order to keep America safe. What a coward!

I did not have to make a decision whether to serve as I was never called up. I met an older man yesterday, my age or a little older. He was wearing a baseball cap proclaiming himself a “Viet Nam Vet.” As we stood in line to pay for what might have been the best fried shrimp I had ever eaten, I thanked him for his service and told him that “I had hidden behind my college deferment.” He was proud but still bitter about returning home and being portrayed as a “baby killer.” I don’t blame him for being bitter. As I think back, I should have paid for his meal while asking what he thought about Ali. It might have made me feel better instead of feeling that I somehow missed out on something, a coward in my own right.

I know exactly what would have happened if I had been called up. I would not have run off to Canada or gone to jail rather than serve. I would have done what thousands did, the expected no matter what my principles were. To have done otherwise would have let someone down, something I seem to have a phobia about despite doing it often. If anything it makes me respect Muhammad Ali even more. He did what was unexpected…for his principles instead of what others thought. His was a special type of bravery that didn’t involve following the “pied piper” of what is expected. Serving in Viet Nam or refusing to serve took a “special kind of guts” that I now realize were both based upon principle.

I don’t know when I began to view him differently, with the respect he deserved for doing what he thought was right. It’s not as if a light suddenly came on; it was more gradual as I became more “educated.” I knew I had found the light when I saw him lighting the Olympic torch in 1996 despite my sorrow over the body that was betraying him. His voice has given voice to other professional athletes and has somehow transcended generation, race and religion. I am truly sorry it has been silenced.

More nonfiction by Don Miller is available at http://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

REMEMBERENCE

As we pause to recognize those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom this Memorial Day I am troubled over some of the reactions to President Obama’s visit to Japan and the site of the first nuclear bomb drop at Hiroshima. This goes beyond the rumors that he might apologize for an act that he characterized as evil. It was the reaction to his characterization that troubles me and not the reaction to a rumor that did not take place.

War is evil and yet we glorify it. I grew up in an age not far removed from World War Two and spent many hours during my childhood playing “war.” I see nothing wrong with it but I never pretended to be Paul Tibbits in the Enola Gay either. I was glorifying the men who stormed the beaches at Normandy, Sicily, and too many islands in the Pacific. I glorify all of the men and women who have served in all of our wars, especially those who gave the ultimate price and believe that our lawmakers have abandoned many of our vets. I glorify our men and women who serve but I will never glorify the act of war. War is evil and shows the worst that humanity has to offer even when it is a necessary evil and you are on the side of “God.”

One of those worsts acts was the use of the nuclear bomb, a truly evil action, even by President Truman’s admission. A truly NECESSARY evil action that Truman was justified in making to end a war that had already ended too many lives. I can’t imagine the personal deliberation Mr. Truman wrestled with coming to the discussion to use the A Bomb but agree with its use. Evil defeating evil…how bizarre.

I don’t know how anyone would not want a nuclear free world? It isn’t going to happen, nor is there going to be world peace. Should we not strive for it though? Should turning the Middle East into a parking lot be the FIRST OBJECTIVE…or even the last. Those of us in the Baby Boomer generation grew up with the fear of “massive retaliation” and “preemptive first strikes.” Alerts were issued cautioning us to not eat snow cream or root vegetables because of high levels of radiation caused by too many nuclear tests. Teachers attempting to convince us that we could survive a nuclear attack by sitting under a desk with a book over our heads. Is this a necessary evil? Until everyone beats their “swords into ploughshares” I would say yes but I still do not support the evil.

We should never apologize but we should never forget it any more than we should forget the price our military paid to end World War Two or any other war. “A Bomb Dome” in Hiroshima should always be a symbol of the evil of war as should the ovens at Auschwitz or the redoubts at Vicksburg. Hiroshima should always be a symbol for the destructive power of nuclear weapons and a reminder of the cost of their use. We should also read what President Obama said, it was a long time needing to be said.

More nonfiction by Don Miller is available at http://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM