Anyone who was seventeen years of age or older in 1941 would be at least eighty seven by now—if he or she is alive to tell of it today. My father-in-law, Francis Xavier Stevens, is among those who are not here to reminisce about the impact this day in 1941 had on their lives. I hope to serve as one small voice to pass his experience on to those in the future who still need to remember.
Frank Stevens was one of those hundreds of high school aged boys galvanized by that day’s news of the shocking attack by the Japanese Imperial Navy. Reports of the losses seemed inconceivable, not only the military losses, but also those to innocent civilians—the expected second step in the horrific attack was presumed to be actual invasion of the island, and civilians and military alike prepared to defend their homeland. News reports, photographs and newsreels presented a devastating picture that translated into an urgent call to action. The statistics were mind-boggling. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed it, the attack on Pearl Harbor seventy years ago today was indeed, “A date which will live in infamy.”
The news about Pearl Harbor changed the destiny of many young men still in high school. I can’t say for sure whether there was any single event that convinced my father-in-law to join the Navy at seventeen years of age—before he finished his high school education—but Frank found a way to get to the Naval Training Center at Great Lakes, Illinois, in little over two months following the Pearl Harbor attack. He was among literally thousands of others motivated to similar action. In recalling what high school was like following that infamous event, my mother (a few years younger than Frank and growing up in another state) talked about how so few young men remained in her school after that 1941 day, and how teachers pleaded—to no avail—with their students to wait until they had finished their course of study before embarking on military training. The call to service was an immediate imperative. Attacking Pearl Harbor was like pulling an invisible, nationwide trigger that thrust an entire “can-do” generation into action.
And now, we look back and remember. Some of the commemorations seem so official, so sanitized, so proper. Some reveal the raw footage of what things were actually like, which, reaching across all these years and all the ensuing generations, are still jarring. But can we really conceive of what that day was like? Can we really take in the enormity of the entire picture?
I’m not sure I can open my mind wide enough to absorb the full impact of that day. Pearl Harbor as a set of data may mean something to my mind in an academic way, but not in a personal, tangible way, until I read the letters or hear the remembrances of those solitary individuals—or the reactions of those who heard them—who devoted themselves to salvage what they could of the destruction and rally the national phoenix to rise from its ashes.
As far as tragedies such as Pearl Harbor go, there aren’t too many eyewitnesses left to bring us to remembrance of what that event did to us as a people. While I’m thankful for those many World War II everyday heroes who determined to make their life a difference for their one assigned small spot in the world, I cannot tell their story like they can. I’m troubled by the possibility that their story—or our retake on their story—may not mean as much to those who follow seventy years beyond. History—let alone our history—tends to be a dry study. Most people would rather pass it by. But we can hardly afford to do so.
It may be just that aspect—the perspective of personal history—that brings an event like Pearl Harbor alive for me in this next generation, that will allow our descendants to comprehend the crux of the matter seventy years hence.