"The Japanese Attacked Pearl Harbor. You Better Get a Uniform!”

Gabe Pressman was 17 years old when he learned of Pearl Harbor and would soon go off to war

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    NEWSLETTERS

    TK
    AP
    American ships burn during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

    It was a good war. We believed it.

    From the moment the Japanese surprise attack devastated the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 1941, Americans were united. Young people rushed to enlist in the armed forces. Older people sought jobs in defense factories or at repair facilities -- like the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Nurses enlisted. Still more volunteered as air raid wardens.

    With the benefit of hindsight you can marvel at how patriotic we were. How we rallied to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s call to avenge what was soon referred to as the “sneak attack” on Pearl Harbor. When FDR went before Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Japan, Germany and Italy, he stirred our indignation:

    “Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 -- a day which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

    How different this was than the wars that followed in later decades, in Korea, Vietnam, and most recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    When we got the news of the Japanese attack, many of us didn’t know where Pearl Harbor was. We knew little about Japanese militarism or ambitions.

    I remember that my family and I were having dinner at about 3 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon when my best friend, Stanley, called. With excitement in his voice, he said: “Are you listening to the radio, boy? The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. You better get a uniform!”

    We were both 17. Two years later, we would both be trained and in uniform. Stanley was a bombardier and pilot -- flying missions over Europe, and later, Germany. I would be a naval officer on a small ship, part of a fleet poised to invade the Philippines.

    Yes, it was a good war, unlike Vietnam and other wars that followed. We were a united country. The bottom line was that we felt threatened and wanted to fight back.

    Enlistment centers were overwhelmed. And a universal draft was put in place. Although a minority of young men sought to be exempted from service, the overwhelming majority wanted to fight. It was an embarrassment to be left out. The draft boards gave people classifications. To be classified 4-F meant that you were found unfit because of physical problems. It was not an enviable position.

    Our fiery mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, said: “It has come and we are ready. I want to assure all the people who have been sneering and jeering at the necessary precautions of civilian defense that we will protect them now.”

    It was 70 years ago -- an event that changed our country and the world. It was the prelude to historic events: the end of Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese military’s rule; the death of many millions in the war and the Holocaust, the Cold War, the triumph of Truman in the election of 1948 and of Eisenhower in the 1952 election; the rise of Ronald Reagan.

    Once, we couldn’t conceive of anything more significant than Dec. 7, 194l. It was highly dramatic -- and it changed the world.

    But now it seems like a distant yesterday -- and history sweeps on, as unpredictable as ever.