ERROL CASTENS: Pearl Harbor a disappearing memory

By Errol Castens/Daily Journal Oxford Bureau

Rural Madison County was still feeling the Depression in 1941, so my dad did that spring what he’d done the year before: He headed north.
As in 1940, Daddy worked his way to the Great Lakes, first following the strawberry harvest and later getting a full-time job on a fruit farm in western Michigan.
Germany had been picking off weaker countries in Europe for nearly two years already, and Japan was strengthening its control of the western Pacific. Though they hoped otherwise, most Americans expected at some time to be forced into the war. A few weeks after his 18th birthday, Daddy joined the U.S. Navy.
He was in Dearborn, Mich., on Dec 7, stationed at Ford Motor Company, where the Navy had him taking training in foundry work. Because it was a Sunday, he got a pass to go into town. He was sitting at the counter of a Walgreen’s Pharmacy, drinking a cup of hot chocolate, when the storeful of people together heard the news that Japanese forces had bombed Pearl Harbor.
A thousand miles from the nearest ocean, he drank the last of his chocolate and headed back to the barracks. New orders would be coming soon.
Britain, France, Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand had been officially at war with Germany for more than two years, since Hitler’s forces had invaded Poland. Even Germany’s Axis Pact with Italy and Japan didn’t change the United States’ official neutrality.
Having lived with the specter of war in both oceans for two years running didn’t prepare folks for the reality of having a sneak attack on American soil. The shock levied by photos of sinking ships and burning planes and the words of President Franklin Roosevelt made military training all the more urgent, more vital, more real.
Before long, American soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen were all over the globe, pushing back at the Axis countries one village, one island, one bombing raid at a time.
Back home, the GIs’ loved ones farmed with less help, worked longer hours on assembly lines and collected aluminum and steel. They walked more to save gasoline and rubber, ate less meat and butter, grew Victory Gardens, volunteered at the USO, blacked out their lights and watched the coasts for enemy vessels.
But when Japan attacked America, the thought later attributed to Marshal General Yamamoto (whether he ever said it or not) proved true: “I fear we have awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.” It would take nearly four years more and half a million American lives, but when the United States entered the war, the die was cast.
The folks who remember the attack on Pearl Harbor are fewer every day. But when they look back, they know that the infamy of the date comes not only from the fury and stealth of the attack but the fact that it changed irreversibly the life of every human of that generation and every one since.
Readers may email errol Castens at errol.castens@journalinc.com.