Lord, Walter. Day of Infamy.

NY: Holt, 1957.

Lord was one of the best popular historians of the mid-20th century, best known for his classic books on the Titanic and the San Francisco earthquake and the major events of World War II. And seventy-five years ago last December an event took place after which the entire world changed completely and forever: The Japanese sneak attack on the American naval presence in Hawaii. It brought the U.S. into the war, all isolationist thoughts forgotten, with a thirst for revenge. (No one these days announces they’re about to go to war, but in 1941, Americans were still outraged at being jumped from behind.) And that did, indeed, change everything.

Lord’s method was always to go and talk to those who had been personally involved in events (on both sides in this case), and to back up those interviews by reading letters and diaries and contemporary news reports, and by steeping himself in all the secondary books and articles that had been written since. The result, of course, is extremely anecdotal history — but that’s okay. This is not meant to be an academic study. It’s meant to put you in the Japanese fleet steaming toward Pearl, and on the docks when the first torpedo bombers came in at low level — everyone thought at first that the explosions were just another of the interminable naval exercises — and running for cover from the strafers, and cranking the sirens. There was a flight of completely unarmed B-17s coming in from California at that moment, and they had a hell of a time of it, getting safely landed before they ran out of fuel. And no one knew, of course, but what there wasn’t an invading fleet of troop transports right behind the Japanese planes.

There were 96 warships in the harbor, including all the U.S. battleships in the Pacific — the carriers were all at sea under Halsey, thankfully — and we lost most of them, permanently or temporarily. Of the 2,043 Americans killed that morning (68 of them civilians), nearly half were lost when the Arizona blew up. There were also some forty explosions in the city of Honolulu, but all but one of those later proved to have been the result of U.S. naval shells that missed their intended targets. Collateral damage, “friendly fire,” but no one seems ever to have blamed the Navy for that, really. Not in the circumstances.

Reading this book — and there’s a tendency to just keep reading and reading until you reach the end — will put you in that time and place if you’re too young to remember the world before Vietnam. And if you’re older, if will bring back a lot of memories. I was just starting high school when this book was first published and I read it before I graduated.

I was an Army brat, the son of a career officer. My father’s top sergeant earlier in the ’50s had been a corporal at Fort Shafter on December 7th, and I heard about his experiences directly, just as I had heard the war stories of several of my father’s friends when they came around on social occasions. It was a very different time, with very different attitudes and enemies — something which young people who insist they would never put on a uniform for any reason simply don’t understand. Lord’s book might be of considerable use in redressing that ignorance.

Published in: on 27 March 2017 at 7:17 am  Leave a Comment  
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