It was a day none of us would ever forget: December 7, 1941.
It was three o’clock Sunday afternoon. My family had just sat down for dinner in our Bronx apartment. Then the phone rang.
It was my best friend, Stan Adelman. “Are you listening to the radio?” he asked. No, I said. And he replied: “Well, you better turn it on. There’s a war on. And, boy, you’d better get a uniform.”
There was excitement in Stan’s voice. And I felt a sense of excitement too. I was 17 years old. In recent months we had followed the progress of the war anxiously, as Hitler’s armies overran country after country in Europe and we rooted for the underdog, the British. Now the war had hit America.
Many of us had never heard of Pearl Harbor until that day. We found out from radio announcers that the Japanese had launched a surprise attack on the Hawaiian Islands. Their target: the U.S. Navy fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor.
The news bulletins brought us details. Waves of planes started attacking the fleet shortly before 8 A.M. Hawaiian time. For the next two hours they rained death and destruction on the island of Oahu and the Pearl Harbor naval base. Hours later, the Japanese would attack American facilities in the Philippines. There would be further attacks on Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand.
But, at this moment, at the family dinner table, none of this was yet clear. In the days and months that followed, we would become aware of the death toll: 2,403. We would learn that 188 American planes had been destroyed, that eight battleships had been damaged or destroyed.
For teen-age boys there was a sense of exhilaration about all this. As the United States moved to declare war on Japan and its European allies, Nazi Germany and Italy, the whole country was caught up in excitement. My friend Stan and I looked ahead to the future with eagerness. We weren’t quite sure what our role would be but we but we anticipated we would be involved in some way.
Our parents, who had lived through World War I, had some anxiety about the future. They knew this would be a necessary war and a good war, by their standards. But they were still wary over what it all might mean to their son.
At 1230 P.M. the next day, December 8th, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke to Congress. He called the Japanese attack “a date which will live in infamy.” Congress quickly passed a formal declaration of war against Japan. America was officially in World War II.
People hovered near their radios in the Bronx and throughout the country. We were hungry for news -- and radio gave it to us instantly. Roosevelt’s speech ran just six and a half minutes but he accomplished what he set out to do. He didn’t hide the staggering effect of the surprise attack: “very many American lives have been lost.” But he rallied Americans to his side speaking of “the unbounded determination of our people.”
We were kids. These historic events thrilled us. We didn’t understand fully what lay in store.
Within 18 months, my friend Stanley would be flying bombers out of a base in England, dodging flak, losing comrades. I would be a communications officer on a small ship, a submarine chaser, that I joined in Pearl Harbor, preparing for an invasion of the Philippines.
We were lucky. We came home unscathed. Understandably, for many younger Americans today, December 7th has no great significance. But for Stan and me and other veterans of World War II the day still has special meaning.
I recall the songs of that era, including “Remember Pearl Harbor” and “Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer.” And we can never forget the reassuring voice of our President, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
FDR made us believe we were united and we would win.
He made us feel we were living history. We were.