Pearl Harbor Day: Some Stirring Memories of the War

The 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day is approaching, and already we are building up to a patriotic sentiment the like of which will not have been seen since our recent quick victory in the Persian Gulf.

Perhaps the Persian Gulf War, which occasioned parades, anthem singing and flag waving throughout the land, will tend to lower the intensity of the World War II celebration. Patriotic fervor can be exhausting.

Certainly the emotion most likely to be inspired by the celebration of Pearl Harbor Day will be nostalgia, not militant patriotism. No one younger than 55 will have any memories of the war. It is something they may have read about in their schoolbooks, reluctantly, or heard about from their grandparents, though most veterans I know don’t talk about it much.

My memory has been stirred by a copy of the American Legion magazine for September, the World War II commemorative issue, which was sent to me by a friend of my son, Robert Lallement.


It is crammed with familiar pictures of famous battles--the Shaw blowing up at Pearl Harbor, the Yorktown smoking from a bomb hit at Midway, Marines splashing ashore at Guadalcanal, Marines under fire on Iwo Jima, GIs wading ashore at Omaha Beach, Gen. Douglas MacArthur wading ashore at Leyte; GIs marching en masse down the Champs Elysees after the liberation of Paris.

There is of course the inevitable photograph of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima, which has recently been the subject of a revisionist book. Its main point, that a smaller flag was raised first, has never been a secret. The first flag was too small to be seen by troops still fighting on the island, and a larger one was raised by those men who happened to be handy--five Marines and a Navy medic. Because of its timeliness and its dramatic composition, the second picture was published around the Allied world, and became perhaps the most famous picture of the war. I happened to look up to Mt. Suribachi from the beach that day and saw it rippling in the breeze. I did not feel cheated because I had not seen the first one.

But it is not just the bloodshed that we will remember. Perhaps the most widely circulated picture in World War II among the troops themselves, was the picture of Betty Grable in a white bathing suit, hands on hips. looking back at us over her shoulder. There were more Betty Grables in lockers and sea trunks than Girls Next Door.

An article on the home front suggests what a bad mistake the Japanese made with their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. So galvanized was America by this iniquity that they turned to the nation’s factories and in five years built 300,000 airplanes, 93,000 vessels, 2.5 million trucks and 400,000 artillery pieces. They supplied the greatest war machine ever seen on Earth.


The magazine recalls that a spiced canned ham known as Spam became de rigueur in foxholes. I remember my first taste of it. We had taken shelter in a kind of hollow on Iwo. My battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel, was sharing a large can of Spam with a captain. They were spearing it out of the can with two fingers. “Mmm,” the captain said. “This is really good. Smith, why don’t you go over with the men and have some?”

It was a reminder that even on a battlefield officers and enlisted men do not mix at the table. The next morning the colonel was killed by a mortar shell, a mortar shell having no respect for rank.

There are bits of memoirs by veterans. Selwyn Baer recalls that he was a radio operator on a Coast Guard ship off Greenland when an uncoded message came through: “Our commander-in-chief is dead. President Roosevelt died this day.”

I heard it in a rather more informal way. I was in a photographic shack on Maui when a mischievous corporal came in. “You heard the news?” he said. “Truman’s President.”


The home front could be rough. Marjorie Hayward of Union City, Pa., writes: “I was 22, working seven days a week, 10 hours a day in a defense plant in February, 1945. We had three children--a girl nearly 5, another 2 1/2, and a boy of 6 months. I was at work when my brother-in-law came and told me that my brave darling had been killed in the Battle of the Bulge.”

But most nostalgic of all are the songs. “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Harbor Lights,” “Where or When,” “As Time Goes By,” “To Each His Own,” “Now Is the Hour” “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.”

I’ve just finished playing Jo Stafford’s recording of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” You want to bring it back? Jo can do it.