My grandpa had no problems telling his Pearl Harbor survival story. Sometimes he would pause, sometimes he would choke up a little or shed a tear, but he never seemed to doubt or misremember the event or its place within his memory and his life. While I don’t envy his experience, I do wish I had his clarity and conviction. His letters, much like his retelling of the Pearl Harbor story later on, reveal a man who knew exactly what his job was, and what America’s job was, in the years to follow. “Keep your chins up!” he repeatedly implored his parents after the attack.
If Grandpa’s Pearl Harbor story was unmuddled, my memories of 9/11 are anything but. That is probably not important in the grand scheme of things – apart from the ubiquitous “where were you?” question that is asked of any American over the age of 25, I was neither there nor in in the military or anywhere else where I could claim personal ownership of the event. But I am a history professor, and now that I find myself having to explain 9/11 to students in my classes who don’t remember it and may not have even been alive when it happened, I need to make sense of a few things. I need to find my own 9/11 story, even if it is limited to the experience of some dopey college student in the Midwest. At the very least, that story may matter someday to my daughter, who might someday get bored of me telling her about my grandpa and will want to hear some things about mom and dad for a change.
But first, it is necessary to compare the significance of both Pearl Harbor and 9/11 as touchstone events in history. And much like 9/11, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor also represents a watershed in America’s historical memory. The attack presents a clear “before and after,” neatly arranging the surrounding history into two distinct epochs. Accordingly, the days, weeks, months, and to some degree years preceding the attack were “peacetime.” Despite the uncertainties and trials of the Depression years, the economy in 1941 was already on the rebound, and for a brief period of time between pervasive unemployment and wartime rationing people had money to spend, and many choices of things on which to spend it. All the fathers, sons, brothers who would soon go to different corners of the planet to fight and die were still alive at home. War seemed perilously close, and a fight with Nazi Germany was perhaps inevitable, but it was also light years away.
However, while September 11th’s “before and after” dichotomy was stark, sudden, and shattering – it only took 102 minutes for two hijacked planes to hit and bring down the Twin Towers, and all but the first four of those minutes were broadcast on live TV – Pearl Harbor was more ambiguous. The attack itself was certainly a tremendous shock, and the anger it generated was more than justified, but few Americans could contemplate on December 6th a future that did not include America’s entry into either the Pacific or European Wars, or both. In 1940, the America First Committee created the largest anti-war movement in American history, mobilizing millions of American voters to reject calls for the United States to enter the war against Hitler and Mussolini. Millions of other Americans, understandably worried about what the future of the world would look like with a swastika flag flying outside Buckingham Palace, somberly followed news from the conflict with a foreboding sense of doom.
Yet within the ostensibly neutral United States government, preparations for the possibility of a coming war began much earlier. During the 1920s and 1930s, American military planners frequently war-gamed what a conflict with Germany and, later, Japan would look like. Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 forced the Navy to begin “neutrality patrols” in an effort to keep the war at bay. But the fall of France in 1940 compelled President Roosevelt to find ways to support Great Britain in the conflict indirectly and without alienating a largely anti-war and Depression-weary American public. On June 2, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to exchange fifty American destroyers for 99-year leases on several British bases throughout the western Atlantic. This quid-pro-quo led to new legislation in March 1940, the Lend-Lease Act, which formalized and legalized future exchanges of that nature when aiding nations whose security was determined to be “vital to the interests of the United States.” (for more information on the Lend-Lease Act, check out this website: https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=71). Meanwhile, the United States issued the first peacetime draft in American history on September 16th, 1940, nearly fifteen months before its official entry into the war.
Elmer Luckett’s letter home on January 4th, 1941 describes some of the preparations being made in San Diego’s Destroyer base. As he waited to be taken to Hawaii, where the USS Chew would soon be launched, Elmer was ordered to help with the buildup. “Yesterday I was busy working with a pneumatic powered steel chisel,” he wrote. “They are clearing the rust off the marine railway structure,” which would then be “used to take the destroyers out of the water and into dry dock.” The United States Navy had recently begun repurposing dozens of aging destroyers from World War I, including the Chew, in order to beef up its Atlantic and Pacific fleets. As these ships were modified and restored for modern use, the decaying Destroyer naval infrastructure had to be restored as well. Projects such as these lit America’s naval bases, ports, and harbors with the high-intensity sparkle of welding torches, and the rattle of pneumatic chisels and other tools echoed throughout the bases. “We are working almost every day now on something or other,” he observed. The war was almost a year away but the mobilization had already begun.
Elmer was beginning to do some of his own war planning as well. Later in the same letter, he asked his parents if it would be wise for him to take out $1000 in National Service Life Insurance. This policy, offered by the United States government, would cost $0.65 a month and would be good for five years. Since his regular life insurance would be void in the event a war started, he wanted his family to be covered if it did. After all, he was sending checks home every month or so, and his father had only recently started finding steady work again after years of Depression-era job insecurity. Elmer’s passing would not only devastate his parents, it could also jeopardize their financial and economic future.
His concern about his parents’ welfare continued to deepen. Three days later, he announced that he had taken out a $2,000 policy for $1.30 a month. “I think I did the best thing, mom. Don’t you think so? How about you dad, does it sound OK to you?” Regardless of their thoughts on the matter, the deal did sound OK to the 22 million other servicemen who purchased policies of their own between October 8, 1940 and September 2, 1945. And for hundreds of thousands of buyers and their families, this would prove to be both a wise investment and a decidedly unwished-for windfall.
In many ways, Pearl Harbor and September 11th offer little more than an apples to oranges comparison. After all, while the War on Terror has killed over half a million people, including 8,748 American military personnel (see icasualties.org for the latest numbers), and has dramatically reshaped the geopolitics of both the United States and the Middle East, its historical footprint is simply not as large as that of World War II (though in the end it may end up lasting much longer). Pearl Harbor’s effects cannot be overstated: it catapulted the United States into a global conflict against three of the most tyrannical and dangerous regimes in human history, and America’s own involvement ushered in both the nuclear and the digital ages. The United States almost certainly owed its postwar superpower status to its vast economic and military mobilization, which alone among the Western powers had survived not only intact but substantially larger as a result of the war. And it is certainly possible that Americans would not have fought in the conflict with such self-assurance, collective resolve, and stoic commitment had it not been for the surprise sacrifice of over 2,400 Americans at Pearl Harbor on December 7th. Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s fear that Japan had only managed to wake a “sleeping giant” was eventually realized when Pearl Harbor, rather than chastening a stunned nation, instead galvanized it into fierce action. Of course, the United States was hardly asleep before Pearl Harbor, but a year and a half of peacetime mobilization could hardly prepare the United States for what was to come. The United States had destroyers to spare, but it had not yet mustered the resolve.
Nearly eighty years later, as I sit here writing this on the 18th anniversary of 9/11, I am also struck by the quietude of the era preceding the latter day. References to September 10th made that date something of a trope, but they suggest a subtle hint of what was lost when those four planes crashed into New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. There was no wartime mobilization during the months leading up to September 11th. Few were worried about or were even aware of what was to come, including some senior officials in the United States government whose jobs were to keep Americans safe. Then again, twelve years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and over a decade since the United States and its coalition allies nearly annihilated Saddam Hussein’s military during the lightning-fast Persian Gulf War, Americans were used to not having to worry too much about war. There was no peacetime draft, no hurried modernizing of aged Cold War-era ships, and no particularly urgent reason to worry about the political fate of the world.
Even the pop culture landscape did not conceive of 9/11’s scale. Most fictional movie terrorist attacks, like those in the strangely prophetic 1998 film The Siege, killed no more than a few hundred people and only did so with gloomy solemnity, whereas disaster films like Independence Day giddily destroyed vast swaths of the world. Depictions of events that lay in-between seemed more fantastical, like Tom Clancy’s almost on-the-nose foreshadowing of the damage a 747 jet could do when a pilot (a Japanese pilot, incidentally, who lost his son and brother in a recent, brief war with the United States) crashed one into the United States Capitol during a Joint Session of Congress in his 1994 novel Debt of Honor. Admittedly, Tom Clancy and others often sounded the alarm to Americans in the years before 9/11, warning them to imagine new and terrible threats to American security and to take them seriously. But those threats, like the looming and catastrophic consequences of climate change today, too often fell on deaf ears.
I would love to tell my grandpa’s 9/11 story here, but I regret to say that I don’t know it. Neither do my parents. I imagine he was as shocked as the rest of us. I believe he was relieved to know that his children and grandchildren were all at least a thousand miles from the devastation, even if most Americans as a whole were only inches away from the terror unfolding across their television screens. Nevertheless, I wish I would have called him, just to check in (my grandmother, who lived in Alabama, probably would have liked one as well). 9/11 provided the ultimate excuse for unsolicited family phone calls.
Even if I were to provide it, though, Pearl Harbor would still remain his story. As I dive deeper and deeper into his letters, both before the event and afterwards, and reconcile these with my own memories of the man, it becomes increasingly clear to me just how powerful and central a moment Pearl Harbor was to him. This stems most compellingly from his experience as a survivor of the attack, but also from his memories of a pre-War America and within the broader context of his own generation’s response to the onslaught. Of course, his World War II journey is much larger than this, much more grand and global in scope. It’s a sweeping, fascinating tale, and I hope to do it all justice. But I think grandpa principally defined his own experience in relation to Pearl Harbor. It was both the beginning and the end of the war for him. Prologue and epilogue all at once.
To a much lesser extent I see the past, present, and future through the lens of 9/11. I was not there – the closest I came was a visit to Ground Zero the following July while in New York and having friends who lost friends. I was not directly affected, apart from starting my third week as a dorm resident advisor with an emergency meeting between the RAs and hall directors as we all tried to figure out what we needed to do, assuming there was anything within our power that could be done. But I will never forget that morning. I slept in, waking only a few minutes before I had to go to my tutoring job. Since I was running late I did not bother to check the TV or the radio or internet at all before leaving. When I arrived at the office, I headed towards the break lounge to drop off my bag and see if any students were waiting for me, and upon opening the door I immediately saw directly in front of me on the television a single Twin Tower – just one, where there should have been two – billowing smoke. I’ll never forget that image.
That said, I hesitate to say that 9/11 is “my” story, insofar as I experienced it just as millions of others who weren’t there. In that sense, it was a defining event in my life, though not as personally defining or immediate as, say, graduating from college, getting married, getting hit by a car when I was 14, climbing the Great Wall of China, or the birth of my daughter. But for my grandfather Pearl Harbor was both.
Perhaps that is why Pearl Harbor was never far from my grandfather’s mind. He was very active in veterans’ associations, had a Pearl Harbor Survivor license plate, and watched Tora! Tora! Tora! more times than any kid my age could claim to have seen The Goonies. He was certainly entitled to attach that kind of personal significance to the event. It loomed large in his memory, and with good reason. He owned a piece of it. And when he died, another piece of the history of the attack died with him.
Anyway, if I don’t post this soon, I am going to have to wait until the 19th anniversary to do so. Perhaps that would give me enough time to think of a suitable ending for this piece, instead of prattling on about my grandpa and about me being late to my college tutoring job 18 years ago. I would like to think that, in the space of a year, I can think of some clever way to wrap up how I feel about 9/11’s legacy, which is that we did not only lose 3,000 Americans that day, but a sense of ourselves. Part of our charity, part of our capacity for understanding collapsed into rubble. Part of what it means to be an American, I think, seemed to disappear.
A compelling argument can be made that Pearl Harbor created a similar pathology within the United States. After all, the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans in 1942 stands as one of the most egregiously undemocratic, inhumane, and un-American actions in recent historical memory. But that preparation before the war, that sense of what was to come, probably helped America fight afterwards instead of becoming completely unglued. The flag-waving and song-singing patriotism, which only lasted weeks after 9/11, helped carry America across the finish line four years after the attack on Hawaii and win the war.
Meanwhile, our War against Terror continues, unresolved, with no end in sight. And while the color-coded terror alerts are gone, the fear remains. It has been eighteen years, and we still live as if we are waiting for the other shoe to drop. But we don’t have to, and perhaps those of us who don’t remember America before 9/11 will lead the way in creating a future that is happier, freer, less burdened, and more inclusive than our romanticized past.