I once asked a man who had been in the Army when Pearl Harbor happened what it felt like to be attacked and lose most of our fleet in the mud. I imagined it was harrowing. I imagined that America was scared to its core. I was wrong.
This man would fight in the war in Italy — through two hard winters — carrying an M1 until he was “asked” to run a battery of 105mm guns in support of his infantry regiment and was ultimately to receive a battlefield commission ending the war capturing a German railway construction battalion which he oversaw as POWs.
“So, how did that feel?” I asked him, meaning how did that feel the day of and after Pearl Harbor.
He looked at me with the wise look that men who have lived hard lives like him, who have put his ass on the line for our country, who have killed our enemies in close combat, who have shot it out in direct eyeball-to-eyeball fire with Kraut 88s across Italian valleys, and he said, “I knew we were going to put an ass whipping on those Japs like they never imagined.”
I was incredulous because I had read west coast newspapers of that time and they had the Japs landing in California any day now. The Japs took the Philippines and a bunch of other places. The Germans had already invaded Poland two years earlier. The Germans declared war against us and we had fewer than 200,000 men in the Army and they had 6,000,000 plus great tanks and those damn 88s.
The US would ultimately have more than 13,000,000 men under arms when the war ended three and a half years later. We would produce more than 50,000 planes a month at our peak. But in that moment, we had none of the ultimate might we would develop.
In my incredulity, I asked him the same question for decades. I could not believe his answer. It seemed impossible, but it never changed.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
I’d been to a military school and I knew what happened next — Guadalcanal whereat the Marines took the first direct blows at the Japs and it took almost a year to finalize the fight, the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, Midway. I knew all of this.
“Where did that confidence come from?” I asked the man.
“Well, we were Americans and I knew what we were capable of.” At the time of Pearl Harbor he was 23-years-old. He had not seen much of life, but he knew what he knew.
When I last spoke of this to this man, he was 97 years old and facing death. The way he died told me that the words he had spoken to me of grace under fire, of rising to the occasion, of knowing what Americans were capable of were the truth.
That man was my father. Here he is three weeks before the start of World War II. He was and is the toughest man I have ever met. He was an American and he knew what Americans are capable of.
As we face our latest crisis, I want you to take a second and think of your family tree — find the exemplar for toughness that resides thereon. That is who we are.
As we face this crisis, know this — just like Pearl Harbor, we will emerge stronger, triumphant, and wiser. But, it will take toughness. Toughness to follow the rules. Toughness to protect ourselves and others.
Let’s unite behind our leaders. Let’s stop the whining and carping. Let’s face the future and improvise, adapt, overcome. Let’s blow sunshine at each other until everybody has a sunburn.