Come back with me for a moment. You and Buddy were eight, just a year older than me and Tommy Roberts. Sunday morning in Hawaii; it’s almost eight o’clock, but we’re up early to play catch; get out of the house. It’s pretty quiet until some planes go over; that’s funny; never seen that red circle on a plane before. Buddy asks us if we have, but no one really seems to know, so we just wave. Boy, they really are flying low. There’s another group over there; the ones who just flew by look like they’re going to land at Hickam field.
“Land my ass,” says Tommy, the wiseguy of the group, “that plane just dropped a, a, a, a freakin’ bomb; look at that. Those bastards are machine gunning the base.”
“Hey,” says Buddy, “Look at the harbor…that other group is bombing the harbor. They’re bombing our ships in the harbor. Aw, cripes, lookathat; they’re bombing the ships!”
We’re all pretty much in shock as we watch the planes at Hickam Field get bombed and machine-gunned, and as the ships in the harbor begin to belch flames and black smoke. The USS West Virginia gets hit and goes to the bottom of the harbor quickly. We just stand there, paralyzed, and not really understanding what the heck is going on.
“Aw, shit,” says Tommy, “Look at the Oklahoma – I think – yeah, that’s the Oklahoma that’s rolling over; ah man, that’s not right. They can’t do that.”
No, that can’t do that, but they are doing it. Suddenly, the Arizona just seems to blow up; it just blows apart. We don’t know it at the time, but 1177 members of the crew of that ship went down with it. No one knows exactly what caused the Arizona to sink in about nine minutes. We saw that it was still burning two days later.
By now, some of the smell has been borne to us in the air. The stink is terrible. We have no clue that it’s a combination of oil, gun powder, and human flesh. All we kids know is that the stink is pretty bad.
As we watch, as much terrified as horrified at the sight before us ship after ship goes down, we can’t look away. Without realizing it we stand there for nearly two hours, just watching. When it’s over, we would learn that twenty-one ships of our ships at Pearl Harbor were sunk or damaged. In addition to the West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, we lost the USS Maryland, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Tennessee. There were cruisers, destroyers, seaplane tenders, repair ships, minelayers, and even the old target ship, the USS Utah. Over 2,400 died and close to another 1200 were wounded.
Playing catch would never be the same for any of us. You and Buddy, me and Tommy, we couldn’t do anything; we were kids. Oh, sure, we picked up empty cigarette packs and took the ‘silver paper’ out, not know that it was the aluminum foil that was so useful to the war effort. We listened to the radio and to Mr. Roosevelt. My folks listened to Walter Winchell; “…Good evening, Mr. & Mrs. America and all the ships at sea. Let’s go to press…;” at least that’s what I think he said when he began his program. We listened because everything was about the war and when it was over, we weren’t in Hawaii anymore. Somehow, magically, you and Buddy, Tommy and I were all living in Rockland, Massachusetts. We all went to the victory parade that went along Union Street, to watch and cheer as some of our soldiers and the fire engines and the band from the high school and somewhere else all came marching by. We yelled and cheered and really never even considered the cost of human life, or those who were left crippled forever. We didn’t use terms like post-traumatic stress syndrome, and the only prosthetics we ever saw were hooks for hands and people with plastic legs who usually walked with canes or crutches. We never realized; thank God, we never realized.
Today, you’re just a memory. Cancer took Tommy. Buddy and I are among the last of our group, but we don’t see each other much. However, I’m willing to bet that both of us remember that Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, when our whole world was turned upside down; when we saw war for the very first time. We’ve been to war, but it was later, and it wasn’t a world war; in fact, some weren’t even called wars, but we made it back. Other buddies, pals, comrades, brothers, they didn’t. We try hard not to remember them, but they sometimes show up in our dreams. Pearl Harbor though; that was a different time; a time when we grew up; a time when we saw real war; its stench, its noise, and even from that hill, we could hear the screams. Oh, God, I never wish to see that again.