I remember Pearl Harbor! There are really no words to describe my feelings and probably the feelings of many veterans, spouses, and widows of World War II (WWII) veterans as we contemplate Veterans Day.
They tell me that over 1,000 WWII veterans are dying daily now. Those living are in their eighties; but to me they are still young men like my grandson, Josh, who is a captain in the Army, serving in Germany now after over a year in Iraq.
The WWII soldiers are still, to me, those idealistic, brave, vital, young soldiers who willingly went off to war, believing that they were helping to assure the safety and freedom of their families. They were willing to serve in spite of great personal sacrifice. They were certainly a part of one of the greatest generations in our country’s history.
Three of my school friends were killed in WWII: Homer Cook, Neal “Red” Cole, and Carroll Adams. God bless their memory. My brother, Tom, served in the infantry. He and his wife, Rowena, married just before he went into the Army. Rowena lived with my mother, her new mother-in-law, while Tom was away. My brother, Jack, was in the Army Air force. These and all the brave men are among those whom we honor as we celebrate Veterans Day on November 11, 2009.
When President Roosevelt came on the radio early Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, and announced that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, life in the towns and cities of America was forever changed. I was still in my teens (18 years old) and vividly remember the terror and anxiety I felt. We’d never before been in war in my lifetime. No one knew what might be next, so days were filled with fear and uncertainty. We were afraid that our mainland would be bombed next.
In the days, weeks, and months that followed, the entire population rallied around the president and our national leadership. Patriotism was strong. Citizens supported whatever the president felt should be done. The immediate response of our nation to the bombing of Pearl Harbor was somewhat like the national response to the events of September 11, 2001, when everyone pulled together and supported one another.
We were all uncertain what would happen next and wondered how our individual lives were going to be impacted. Winning the war seemed to be the only focus of the entire population.
Soon the military draft began. Able-bodied young men were eager to sign up. It was the right and patriotic thing to do. They felt a desire, a need, and an obligation to protect their families and their country from threat and to ensure our way of life. Charles was in line early – the morning they opened the draft. Because of this, he got a low draft number. However, before his number came up and he could be drafted, he, like many others, opted to volunteer instead so that he could choose his branch of service. Women were never drafted, but many volunteered to serve in the WACS and WAVES.
In 1943, Charles and three other young men from our hometown, Grover Foster, Roy Connell, and Charlie Miller, were sent to Cherry Point, North Carolina. Later they were stationed in San Diego. Charlie Miller was wounded in the battle of Iwo Jima and was never well again. These four young fathers joined countless others giving years of their lives for the good of their country.
When we learned that Charles was to be shipped to the South Pacific without a furlough, I went out to be with him in San Diego. On the way there (a four day train ride), I came down with scarlet fever. The next day, after I arrived at the Marine base, I was quarantined for 21 days. The Marines gave Charles a furlough after all so he could come home with me before he was sent overseas. His first assignment in the South Pacific was in the Caroline Islands.
Back at home, food and gasoline were in short supply because the nation’s resources were going toward the war effort. The government issued ration books to citizens who then had to use the coupons to get supplies such as sugar and gasoline.
Some textile plants switched over to making strong canvas for tents instead of fabrics for civilian clothing, and some of the mills made cord which was used to reinforce tires for military vehicles. Almost all the mills switched from making goods for regular civilian use to making needed military supplies.
The focus of daily life was to keep abreast of what was happening “overseas.” I remember reading the newspapers from cover to cover every day to find out what was happening and discussing the events with other adults with whom I came into contact throughout the course of the day. All ears were tuned to the radio any time a report or a speech came on. There were great, inspiring, and encouraging speeches by Roosevelt and Churchill.
Every night, I sat down and wrote a letter to my Marine. Every morning I dressed my two little girls and walked to the Post Office to mail that letter and see if we had a letter from “Daddy.” He wrote as often as he could. He was a great letter writer.
Citizens spent whatever “free time” they had doing whatever they could to help with the war effort. Some worked for the Red Cross. Patriotic and Christian groups frequently had rallies and services to support the troops and to encourage each other.
Children’s lives were very different with few male influences in their lives, and the constant talk of war made many of them fearful. A whole generation of children lived without the benefit of their fathers. And those fathers gave up precious early years of their children’s lives in order to preserve freedom for our country.
Finally, the war was over. There were community and church celebrations throughout the country. I clearly remember the celebration service our community held. The entire community gathered at the Baptist church in Milstead to thank the Lord for the end of the war. It was quite a celebration!
Charles often said in the years after the war that “buddies” in the service are not just buddies – they are brothers. They all seemed to feel a strong sense of brotherhood and connection with each other, realizing that their very lives were in each other’s hands.
This is what Memorial Day and Veterans Day and Independence Day and every day means to me. It means recognition of the sacrifices made – and those still being made by soldiers, their families, their children, and the nation as a whole. It means appreciation for what thousands of our fellow citizens have done for me – for all of us, and for their country – not just in WWII but in other wars our country has fought to preserve our freedoms and the freedoms of people throughout the world. I pray that they shall not have lived and fought and died in vain.
Ruth Baird Shaw is the mother of seven children, including Dr. Janice Shaw Crouse, Director and Senior Fellow of Concerned Women for America’s Beverly LaHaye Institute.