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When unity was all-American

Pearl Harbor attack brought us together in a way we seem to have forgotten

December 04, 2011|George Skelton | Capitol Journal
  • Pearl Harbor is devastated after Japanese warplanes attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, pulling the U.S. into World War II.
Pearl Harbor is devastated after Japanese warplanes attacked on Dec. 7,… (National Park Service )

The 70th anniversary of the "date which will live in infamy" does not itself conjure up any sense of nostalgia, especially along California's coast.

Nostalgia is for homesickness and sentimentality.

The Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor — "sneak" became the motivating adjective used by Americans of all ages — evoked immediate feelings of anger, commitment and fright, the latter particularly among little kids. At least that's what I felt and saw.

PHOTOS: A date which will live in infamy

That said, there is for me a deep sense of nostalgia for the instinctive American attitude during World War II — an attitude of unity, shared sacrifice and, yes, unconcealed patriotism.

Mine will be the last generation with any personal recollection of "the war," as it was simply called.

We are not the "Greatest Generation" that survived the Great Depression and triumphed over Hitler and Tojo. Those were our fathers, mothers, uncles and aunts. We are the "Silent Generation."

"The Silent Generation was silent, in part, because the story of the elder GI generation overwhelmed any story they might be tempted to tell of themselves," California historian Kevin Starr writes in his book, "Golden Dreams."

Starr, however, does give us this due: "Members of the Silent Generation would become the primary facilitators of the civil rights movement, the resistance to the Vietnam War, feminism and the sexual revolution."

There aren't a lot of us left, "Silent" or "GI," with any personal memories of the war — roughly 3% of Californians, I figure, including 2% who might remember Pearl Harbor.

I do because my mother came tearing out of our house in Santa Barbara and into the backyard where my younger brother and I were playing. "Remember this day," she lectured us. "It's Dec. 7. Dec. 7. It's historic. America has been attacked.... We're at war."

Not as eloquent as FDR's famous "Infamy" speech, but she was a day ahead.

I was 4. We were all a little scared. They could be on our beaches in a few days.

In fact, not long afterward, after sundown on Feb. 23, 1942, a Japanese submarine surfaced off the coast just north of Santa Barbara and shelled the Ellwood oil field where my dad was working on a crew. Nobody got hurt and damage was minimal, but Dad was ticked.

"They gave us pitchforks and told us to go stand on the beach and defend it," he groused to my worried mom when finally allowed to come home at sunup. "What was I supposed to do with a pitchfork?"

That year, there were blackouts up and down the coast whenever there was an air raid scare, which was often.

Larry Schriber, a high school friend, was living just south of San Francisco. "My uncle was an air raid warden," he recalls. "I was a junior air raid warden. I had my own hard hat. I went around with him at night to make sure that after the air raid signal sounded, everyone had their black shades pulled down. No lights could be showing outside.

"I thought it was very important. I was 5 and thought I was the real thing, already an adult."

Schriber later moved to Santa Barbara, where his mom became a "Rosie the Riveter" on a war aircraft assembly line.

Many people my age have similar stories about the war's end — about being thrilled that their fathers would be returning safely.

Jean Ryan, a friend since college, remembers walking with her mother in Big Basin Redwoods State Park near Santa Cruz and hearing sirens. "I thought it was a fire," she says. "Mom said it was the end of the war. I told her, 'Oh goody, Daddy can come home now.'"

Her dad was an ensign in the merchant marine. "My mother had a map and would try to put dots on it to tell me where he was — because some kids at school would say, 'Hey, I know your dad's been blown up on a ship.'"

Kids can be cruel. But virtually all knew of dads and uncles and older brothers who were being blown up. A first-grade friend of mine lost his father. A third-grade teacher's husband was badly wounded. A family friend returned home as a Marine hero, learned his bride had been having an affair and shot himself.

We weren't exactly noble with American citizens and legal residents of Japanese descent, banishing 110,000 to desert prisons. That's a permanent blight on California and the nation.

"Some Japanese kids I knew got taken away," says longtime Democratic politician John Burton of San Francisco. "Our gardener was taken away. I remember that [crap]."

What I remember most are the home-front adults pulling together, willing to sacrifice, committed to a common goal: victory. Gasoline, tires, meat, sugar and shoes all rationed, and no one really griping.

The Army took over the fancy Ojai Valley Country Club to train infantry. I'm sure no environmental impact report was required. Troops would march past our small citrus ranch to a mountainside firing range, and my brother and I would hand out freshly picked oranges.

To support the troops our parents bought war bonds. It would have been unimaginable — unpatriotic — to demand tax cuts. Government was the protector, not the enemy.

"The sense of mobilization for a higher purpose lasted through the '50s," Starr says. "It wasn't all just peace and harmony. But there was a kind of national consensus."

For this state, the historian adds, "World War II internationalized California. We became the Gibraltar of the Pacific."

On Pearl Harbor Day, I'll feel no nostalgia — only a sense of solemnity and respect for the GI generation.

PHOTOS: A date which will live in infamy george.skelton@latimes.com

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