On December 8, 1941, a day after Japanese forces attacked the American military base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, my father, a physician, re-enlisted with the US Navy department. Within a few weeks he was sailing on the U.S.S. President Hayes bound for Hawaii where he would serve for the next year followed by another year on Midway Island.
Between December 11, 1941 and January 25, 1944 he wrote 45 letters to cousins in Philadelphia (who saved the letters) and he kept a journal until the Navy prohibited its personnel to write diaries. His letters and writings are a remarkable record of a wartime physician serving wounded soldiers in the Pacific theater. They reveal his instinctual call to duty, his loyalty to country and his ready compliance to orders, all of which are virtues that Tom Brokaw characterized as emblematic of the “greatest generation of Americans.”
Recently, my brother painstakingly transcribed and annotated our father’s journal entries and letters after having found them in a box at the back of a closet in our mother’s apartment when we moved her to assisted living three years ago. These writings are far more than a series of personal anecdotes of our father’s years in the service. They offer a moving historic account of one of the most traumatic events in 20th century American history.
For my generation, the two Kennedy and King assassinations were transformative. For my sons’ generation, 9/11 was the historic turning point. For my parents, it was the Great Depression, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and World War II that changed their lives.
As the 74th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor approaches next week, I offer my father’s words as a memorial to those who died in World War II.
Journal Entry –– Monday, February 2, 1942
“We started into … Pearl Harbor at noon. Before leaving San Diego we had heard of the damage done…but the sight of the wreckage of part of our fleet left us all in a very sad and solemn mood… We have heard many stories first hand from the men who were actually here and went through the dreadful blitz of Dec 7, 1941. These men, most of them quiet, reserved, humble in their narrations are the first great and unsung heroes of our second world war…”
What follows is part of a summary of what our father had heard directly from these witnesses:
“The Oklahoma was hit first. Four torpedoes tore into her sides and in a few moments, before her men had time to man her guns or get onto the deck she heaved and turned completely over on her top with her bare hull just showing above water. Practically all the men aboard were drowned – and many of the bodies are still there. … [Immediately] the Arizona, California, and New Mexico were attacked. [On] The Nevada…a torpedo hit her amid ship on the port side and she started to list. The engine crew stayed on their jobs, every man hadn’t any thought apparently of getting out or saving his own life…the Japs flew low…and dropped a torpedo on the fore-deck, ripping a hole clear through to the hold of the ship…and machine-gunned the men. One man I talked to was thrown from the deck by the explosion, fell into the thick oil water and started to swim, saw the Arizona…reached the anchor chain of another ship, started to climb, only to see airplanes diving in his direction, machine-gunning — he fell back into the water, finally climbed ashore, and continued to fight on the Nevada until it was all over. The ships were ablaze, the water, covered with oil soon caught fire burning many struggling sailors….
…There was a chap [below] on the great aircraft carrier Saratoga, who when the ship was hit by a torpedo…water [was] pouring in. He ran to close the water tight doors to his compartment, then ran to the next and closed it, found the next compartment already closed so [he] couldn’t get out. He called the officer, “Sir, I have closed the water tight doors to two compartments, the water is coming in her pretty fast but I think there is still time for me to get out of here if you will open the next compartment and let me out; …the reply came back, “I’m sorry, son, you know the rules, the safety of this ship depends upon those doors remaining closed. We probably couldn’t close them after you.” “Yes, sir, I understand, sir, but could you please put someone on the phone to keep talking to me. I’d appreciate it very much, sir.” His request was granted, the lad kept talking while the water roared in from the outside – 3 minutes later his voice died away…”
This was, of course, just the beginning. Between 1941 and 1945, 405,399 Americans died in battle in the Pacific and Europe. In total, in addition to the 6 million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their henchmen, over 60 million people died in that war making it the deadliest military conflict in history.
On this 74th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, it is upon us to pause in reverence of those who gave their lives in defense of the United States and the innocent of all nations, and we remember the horrors that are always unleashed in war.
Note: The above quotations are taken from “An American Physician in the World War II Pacific: The Correspondence and Diary of Leon Rosove, MD” edited and annotated by Michael H. Rosove. Privately issued. Santa Monica, CA. 2015.