Friday, December 9, 2011

Pearl Harbor

This past week marked the 70th anniversary of the December 7th attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor.  Though I was born long after that surprise raid, which ushered American’s entry into World War II, the date is firmly planted in my memory – much like “9/11” will be embedded in the consciousness of Americans who were not born ten years ago, or even yet today.   

As a kid, I wasn't so far removed from the events that occurred on that infamous day.  (And let’s face it, I was born only 15 years later.)  In one sense, I was separated from the event by only two degrees.  The little elementary school I attended employed a janitor/bus driver named Leroy.  I remember this kindly, mild-mannered man mainly for his pleading with us students not to flush popsicle sticks down the toilets.  One day, however, our teacher asked Leroy to come and speak to the class about something considerably more serious.  Leroy had been there at Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack.  I’m sure we woolly-brained kids were not the most attentive audience, and I don't really remember anything he told us then about that day, except that he was stationed at the army base there.   I now regret not understanding at the time what a rare chance we were given to hear a first-person account of something so historic. 

Still, the real reason World War II featured prominently in my young mind was that my father fought in the Pacific.  A couple of years before Pearl Harbor, my father and a buddy had left home (without his mother's knowledge) to join the Coast Guard, partly because he felt that war was coming anyway and he didn't want to be just another raw recruit when it did.

Gunner's Mate 1st Class Hoover Tankersley.

When the Japanese attacked on December 7th, my father was on leave in Savannah, Georgia, where his Coast Guard cutter was stationed.  As news of the attack came in, the Shore Patrol scoured the streets of Savannah to find him and enough of his shipmates to man the cutter and put her to sea as quickly as possible.

The war never really came to Georgia, though, and my father, along with the rest of the Coast Guard, was incorporated into the US Navy during the war.  He went on to serve as a Gunner's Mate operating an anti-aircraft battery on a Navy LST (Landing Ship, Tank), a specialized ship used during amphibious invasions to off-load men and heavy equipment directly onto a beachhead.  

On the way to the action against the Japanese, my father's ship was first used for the more mundane task of transporting supplies to Hawaii, including a large consignment of beer – which my father noted somehow became a little less large as the LST made its way from San Diego to Pearl Harbor.  

After that beer run, my father's ship, LST-782, took part in one amphibious landing after another in the “island hopping” campaign across the Pacific, eventually joining the invasion of Iwo Jima as part of a 450-vessel flotilla.  I remember as a kid once playing on the top of a six-foot-high mound of clay uprooted by a fallen tree near our house, a mound that we named Mount Suribachi after the volcanic peak that was the objective of fierce fighting in the battle for Iwo Jima.  Even as a kid I had internalized the name of the summit where six servicemen raised the American flag in a moment captured in an iconic photo made famous worldwide.  Maybe it was because of my father telling us kids how from his ship he could see the flag flying high atop Suribachi.  

An LST preparing for action in Korea, 1950.

My father's LST delivered its cargo of equipment, food and ammo via various smaller amphibious craft over a period of four days, retiring to anchor offshore at night while the hellish fighting ensued on the island.  On the fourth day, the LST beached itself on the volcanic sand of the beach and opened its gaping bow doors to bring on casualties and serve hot food to weary Marines taking a break from the fighting.  It was reported that they served 5500 cups of coffee in a 12-hour period.

When the war ended, five months later, with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, my father's ship was preparing for the ultimate invasion of the Japanese home islands, something I'm sure he dreaded, as fierce resistance was expected.  When the news broke of Japan's surrender, the crew of LST-782 was ordered to dump into the sea its cargo of Army jeeps, which would have been used in the invasion.   

Dropping the atomic bombs brought the war in Pacific to an abrupt end, as we all know, removing the need for an invasion of Japan that my father might have not survived.  It's sobering, humbling in fact, to think that the horrific bombing of two cities, which extinguished upwards of a quarter of a million lives, might have been indirectly responsible for my own life being brought into existence – which I do realize doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things.  Still, it does make you think about how events, some too horrible to contemplate, that happened long ago in places we'll never see can ripple over our own lives in unexpected ways.  

1 comment:

  1. My own dad did not fight at all during WWII. He was stationed in Jacksonville Florida and had been issued orders to be shipped out to Europe in 1944 when the Nazi rat bastards were fighting for their existences. Just before his group was to be sent out, Congress passed a law that if a soldier was 30 years old or more and had more than three children at home then he was to be returned to his family. Thus, my dad was sent home.

    Modern historians will now tell you that it was as much the influence of the Soviet Army's sudden, crushing, and overwhelming defeat of the Kwantung Army and its vast reserves which was likely the straw that broke the back of Japanese resistance. And not, actually, the two atomic bombs that we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.