This Blog originally appeared in a much shortened version in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. I like to post it every year around this time so that people will “Remember Pearl Harbor”.
Every Pearl Harbor Day (December 7th for those who don’t remember), I make a tradition of watching a WWII movie about the Japanese attack in 1941. It used to be that I watched the 1970’s film “Tora, Tora, Tora”. Now, it’s the 2001 Michael Bey Movie, Pearl Harbor starring Ben Affleck and Kate Beckinsale.
Critics made a lot of complaints when the film came out that it was “...too romantic” and didn’t capture the infamy of the moment. But for me, it gets me reflecting on my parent’s time -- what journalist Tom Brokow called, the “Greatest Generation”.
That’s in part because, in my now 57 years, my Mother -- Margaret Mildred Tokunaga Berge was the only woman that I knew who had survived a bombing raid, the surprise attack Pearl Harbor at 7:48 a.m., December 7th, 1941.
It isn’t as uncommon as it used to be. This current generation, seemingly not content to send our children off to war, thinks nothing of sending our young mothers off to distant lands to fight -- and die.
My father, Tracy Read Warner, was there as well. Having been born in the town of Ilion, New York -- a blip of a town on the Erie Canal in the Mohawk Valley -- that was, as it’s essential claim in history, the home of Eliphalet Remington, original maker in of the famed Remington rifle in 1816.
Dad left this small backwater town at the age of 18 in 1938 for a three-year stint in the United States Army Air Corps. It turned into 30 or so.
He told me once that he wanted a fancy uniform and he wanted to meet girls. An Army recruiter told him and his best friend Ray Sampson they would do just that and more as they went through boot camp as buddies and served their country together.
They signed up and after training, they didn’t see each other again for the next 27 years. Mr. Sampson was shipped off to Europe. My father was shipped through the Panama Canal to Hickam Field on the Pacific Island of Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands.
He was scheduled to be discharged on December 24th, 1941. He didn’t make it that year. His whole life changed because of where he was at about ten minutes before 8:00 a.m. on December 7th.
When I asked him about what he did over the next half hour or so that day, he downplayed his effort, though supposedly he won a decoration of some sort for his bravery. He told me that in midst of the bombing, he rode an Indian brand Motorcycle to the main air-field amongst burning planes and falling bombs to pick up a General or some such officer who had just landed. At one point, he drew his sidearm and fired at a Japanese zero swooping down at them. He said it was so close he could see the pilot’s face. In his excitement, he accidentally dropped the officer off the back of the bike. He missed the pilot with his .45. He almost messed his pants.
Mostly, he said, he was just plain scared.
Meanwhile my Mother, 13 years old, was down the harbor a little in an area called Aiea Heights at a neighbor’s house. She, her older sister and brother along with their Mother, lived in a small apartment over a garage belonging to a dentist. As the bombing began, they really weren’t all that concerned. Everyone thought, “Probably just the Navy over in the main harbor doing maneuvers”.
Their apartment was apparently down the street from something important because after the bombing at the air-field and the harbor, retreating Japanese planes bombed the street.
Ironic -- my grandmother’s last name was Tokunaga and was full-blooded Japanese. Japanese bombing Japanese.
My mother was “missing” for a while during and after the attack, my Grandmother told me -- having been hurried down the cellar stairs by a neighbor to safety in the basement. And, for what seemed an eternity, she raced around in the confusion screaming Margaret’s name until my mother popped her head through a downstairs window.
Everyone waited for the next attack wave of ground troops that was sure to follow the bombing raid -- but it never came.
My mother told me that she too, was scared -- mostly because all of the adults around her who were so terrified at the surprise devastation of the raid.
But they both survived, and, because my father was in charged of the NCO club at the air base (the crossroads of the Pacific where everyone went sooner or later) he and my Mother’s father became acquainted. Which led, apparently to some clandestine meeting between the 21 year-old Air Corps Military Policeman and sometimes bartender and the then 15 year-old Margaret.
The folks back home in Ilion were not impressed, but they got married in 1944 when my Mother was just 16. In those days, she told me, it was every girl’s dream to marry a serviceman and get off that God forsaken island in the middle of nowhere -- in the middle of the Pacific Ocean -- in the middle of a major war.
Consequently, I have a soft spot for the “romance” of the movie. Without it, I guess I wouldn’t be here today.
Were they the “Greatest Generation”? Sometimes I think so. The 16 year old girl with the 8th grade education and the kid from Ilion, New York who wanted to see the world, lived through a war, got married, raised a family, bought a house, voted in elections, got old, and -- in my mind -- died too young, both of cancer.
And every December 7th, the memory of their young romance fills my heart with a certain flutter, while I remember Pearl Harbor.