Born on The Day of Infamy!
When your birthday is December 7th (as mine is), you grow up well aware of what happened on that date in 1941.
Back in the 1950s and ‘60s when I was a schoolgirl, I took this reality for granted.
“When’s your birthday?”
A wide-eyed step backward—an apprehensive look… as though I had a feared disease and might still be contagious: “Ooooh! Pearl Harbor Day!”
Yes. I was born on Pearl Harbor Day, the day that Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared a “date which will live in infamy.”
Conspiracy theorists claim that the United States “should have known” an attack would be made on the U.S. Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Some even suggest that Roosevelt had some kind of secret knowledge. Tensions between the United States and Japan had been building since the Japanese invasion of Manchuria had expanded into all-out war in 1937. In July of 1941 the United States halted oil shipments to Japan in response to its expansion into Indochina.
In truth, according to the U.S. Naval Institute, “how the Japanese prepared for the attack is what assured their success that morning, and it is likely the Americans could have done nothing to alter significantly the outcome….”*
Similarly, there is nothing I could have done to alter the date of my arrival in this world. Until recently, I never thought it significant in terms of the course of my life or my identity.
Now, however, I wonder.
As a child, certainly, I knew there had been a war fought and won in the years prior to my birth. In nearly every house in our neighborhood, a framed photo of a handsome young man (the “Dad” of the family) in some sort of uniform sat atop the television or mantel or on a bookshelf.
I grew up knowing that my Uncle John had served in the Army, Uncle Philip in the Air Force, Uncle Joe and Uncle George in the Navy. I was aware that my cousin—Henry, just 21 years old—died in a flight training accident over Chesapeake Bay; his body was never found. In my mind’s eye, I still see his formal portrait in uniform, elaborately framed and displayed over the fireplace my Aunt Madeline and Uncle Faris’s house. I knew that my Aunt Rosemary’s nephew Richie, at age 19, had gone down with an LST (Landing Craft Tank) when it hit a mine off the Coast of Normandy a few days after D-Day.
I remembered how a neighbor, a former Marine who was helping build a stone barbecue fireplace in Uncle Joe’s back yard described hunkering down in a foxhole, surviving on the last few bites of the chocolate bar in his K-rations. Now, years later, I wonder which Pacific Island he fought on. Which horrific battle he survived. I believe it was Iwo Jima.
Over the years, my Uncle Joe’s stories of his various wartime adventures became the stuff of family legends and the entertainment at many a holiday meal. Meanwhile, Uncle John remained, for the most part, silent about what it was like to serve in an infantry brigade that came to be known as “The Kraut Killers.” And Uncle Phil said very little about his seventeen missions over Germany as a ball turret gunner on a B-17.
As a young editor, I worked with Nat Bellantoni, an art director; I didn’t find out until years later, after he retired and I was working with his daughter, Nancy, that he had spent twenty-nine months in the South Pacific with the U.S. Navy Seabees. And that during those months he had filled sketchbooks and completed dozens of watercolors.
Eventually, all these men who had spent their youths forging the legends of the Greatest Generation became old men. And it was then that they began to speak more freely of their experiences and their opinions when the topic turned to war.
And then one by one, in their late eighties or their early nineties, they died. It was only after they were gone that I realized two of these men, my uncle Joe Flynn, and Nat Bellantoni, had entrusted me with their stories.
For almost as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be—and have been a writer. For decades I worked as a freelance copywriter and editor. Each assignment, completed for a client, was an adventure—learning and writing about new topics, new industries, new products, new ideas.
Several years ago, I decided to stop writing for clients. I would write for myself. Then in June of 2012, my friend and colleague, Nancy Bellantoni, called to tell me that her father wanted to write a book about the paintings he had brought back from the South Pacific. But of course Nat was 91 years old and near death by then. She asked if I would write the book for Nat, and I said that, yes, I would.
At that point, I had had already begun a very different book—a compilation based on my Uncle Joe’s vividly remembered stories. In fact, I had already written more than a few chapters, but set them aside to focus on Nat.
The Battalion Artist, which presents Nat Bellantoni’s twenty wartime watercolors and the context in which they were created, is now complete. Nancy and I are in the process of seeking publication.
Meantime, I am continuing to write about Joe—his boyhood shenanigans reminiscent of “The Little Rascals;” his six years in the Navy between 1940 and 1946—as a snipe (fire room engineer) on the heavy cruiser USS Wichita, as an engineer on the USS Redwood (a net tender) and as lighter-than-air-sailor in Blimp Hedron #1; his marriage which he described as “made in heaven;” his career with the U.S. Postal Service, which sometimes has the flavor of “The Keystone Kops;” and a long and interesting retirement. I plan to call it The Life of One Good Man. (And of course, there’s a surprise ending.)
Perhaps I should have known that with a birth date of December 7th and a dream of becoming an author, I would sooner or later write a book about World War II.
I have now completed one. And I’m working on another.
I hope some day you will read them both.
*Hanyok, Robert J. “How the Japanese Did It,” Naval History Magazine – December 2009, Vol. 23, No. 6