By Polly Keary
That was the 9/11 of my grandparents’ generation.
I heard my grandparents tell of it. I’ve read about it. I studied it in history. I’ve seen the movies, too.
But today, having just finished writing the story of Monroe’s David Nelson, who as a teenager operated a gun on the USS Whitney that day, I realize I haven’t ever adequately considered Pearl Harbor.
I spent most of the day researching, trolling around the internet for the political history leading up to the attack, reading up on the function of the USS Whitney, and finding first-hand accounts of those who served on the Whitney or any of the five destroyers that the Whitney was tending the day of the attack.
Once again, I’m struck by the epic dangers the Great Generation brought this country through.
Nelson was a boy during the Great Depression. He joined the military because he was out of work; a quarter of the population was, which does tend to put the recent recession into perspective.
The situation in the Middle East today is alarming.
But when Nelson joined the military, the whole world was alarming.
Japan was a formidable enemy, and a clever one.
All Europe and the entire Soviet Union was melting down into an armed struggle. Our allies were endangered everywhere. The horrors perpetrated by aggressors were mythic in scale.
Hitler’s atrocities weren’t fully known, but he was already talking about the possible annihilation of the entire Jewish race, and as insane as that proposition must have sounded, Hitler had the wherewithal to do it.
And what Japan was reported to have done upon invading the Chinese capitol of Nanking put Rwanda’s genocide in the shade. The numbers are highly disputed, but most historians, Japanese and otherwise, put the number of massacred at 200,000 at least, and often with swords.
Almost every country in the world with a significant military force was at war. It must have seemed like Armageddon to some. How could it not? It was the most apocalyptic time the world has ever faced, and for those informed by the Christian tradition, the savagery and sheer insanity of the treatment of Jews must have added a frightening religious overtone.
Another thing that struck me as I reviewed the history of Pearl Harbor was the complexity of the political situation, and the Japanese reasoning for the attack.
The U.S. cut off most of the oil going to Japan. They needed oil. Where to get it? The Dutch Indies. But that would require seizing the Indies, and that was likely to start a war with the U.S.
The U.S. also stood in the way of a future invasion of the Philippines, and eventually, conquest of much of the Far East. What to do? Make sure the U.S. would stay out of the Pacific. The best way to do that?
Disable the Navy, demoralize the country.
They might have pulled it off, had they carried out the planned third wave that they aborted, or had more of the Navy’s ships been at anchor that day. As it was, the Pacific Fleet was horribly decimated.
Yet David Nelson and the America of those days managed, with the remainder of the fleet, to fight – and with their allies, to win – a worldwide war.
They did it at a ghastly price.
Sometimes I get a little put off by Veterans Day. I think it’s because I’ve dwelt on war a lot in my life, and have read a lot of books by veterans, the most recent “The Things They Carried.”
Veterans Day and the other war remembrance days sometimes seem a bit like a lot of war movies, Ron Howard’s Pearl Harbor in particular; sanitized and set to music, romanticized.
It comes from a good place, a real desire to heroize people who have endured a lot for the country. But when I think of what veterans like Nelson have done and where they’ve been, I don’t necessarily think of fearlessness in the face of death, or heroic and selfless acts in battle.
I think of horror. I think of what war veterans have seen, and what they know about humans that most of us don’t know.
I think of what David Nelson and thousands of other Pearl Harbor survivors have had to process mentally in the years since that day. What they saw in the water. What they saw on nearby ships.
Yet David Nelson went on to a career in the military, even after going through one of the most traumatic events any American has ever faced.
On Pearl Harbor Day, it seems like a good day to not only honor veterans like David Nelson, but all Americans who rallied from that staggering blow and kept the country together.
David Nelson, and the Great Generation, thank you.