Not many realized how inauspicious the timing of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor had been. It was a classic example of military leaders still fighting old wars. The harbor was full of battleships securely moored. But this war would rely heavily on aircraft carriers, and on December 7th our carrier fleet was at sea. The attack did less to wound than make us really angry. Admiral Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese fleet, said, “I fear all we have done is awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
Chancellor Hitler of Germany, believing Japan would make short work of us, declared war on December 11. The United States, already at war with Japan, responded in kind. And we weren’t entirely blind-sided. Congress recently had enacted the first peacetime conscription in our history. Now the eligible age was lowered to 18 and the maximum raised to 65.
Albany, where we lived, was considered a tempting target – and it went into security mode: barbed wire, patrolling soldiers, air raid drills. When the sirens wailed at night, we turned off lights and waited for the drone of airplanes. None ever came, but on an east wind we sometimes smelled the smoke of burning tankers off the Jersey shore.
We kept our eyes peeled and mouths shut, saving everything: lard, metal, newspapers, rags, waste oil. We kids collected m ilkweed pods for life preservers. We bought defense stamps in school and pasted them into books redeemable when full for war bonds.
Gasoline, sugar, butter, and meat were rationed. City buses cut their stops in half. V-Mail allowed a serviceman to cram thousands of words onto a single page that folded up for free mailing, with the flap unsealed so censors could delete damaging secrets.
Our internal struggles were hardly eliminated by the war effort; “muffled” would be a better way to put it. But we were led by giants then – Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Marshall – and would have followed them anywhere.
The passions of that war have long since faded. Today, those of us who remember, but were too young to enlist, are following into oblivion those who weren’t. But we’ll never forget the spirit that animated us and the victory we achieved, against impossible odds, on opposite sides of the world.
This is Willem Lange in Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.