Three weeks past my 15th birthday, I attended the New York Giants-Brooklyn Dodgers football game at the Polo Grounds with my friend Burt Boyar and 55,000 fans.
At half-time, the stadium announcer read a long list of names — high-ranking military officers. political leaders, and journalists — with instructions to “Call your office immediately!”
No reason given.
It was not until seconds after the last play that we were told that Pearl Harbor was being bombed by Japanese planes! Our country was at war!
The world we lived in had just disappeared.
Starting soon after the end of the first World War, Americans had become fiercely anti-war. They had drunk the propaganda Kool-Aid and merrily, innocently, marched into the horror of that conflict. When the appalling casualties came home — especially the victims of poison gas — there was a realization that the grandiose aims were a farce, and our people were enraged.
Anti-war propaganda was everywhere. Millions of copies of the devastating novel All Quiet On the Western Front were sold in a couple dozen languages. The American movie version was so powerful that it changed the life of its young star, Lew Ayers. He became a dedicated pacifist and almost lost his career as a result.
Heart-breaking songs like the highly successful Brother Can You Spare a Dime? blended down-and-out veterans and depression-era unemployed. Bing Crosby’s version brought tears.
One of the most powerful anti-war voices was the New York Daily News. With a huge circulation, it was almost rabid in its opposition to any American involvement in World War II.
The United States, with those attitudes, completely disappeared as the bombs exploded in Hawaii.
My reaction was immediate. Like millions of Americans, I wanted to fight for my country.
Before dawn the next morning, when I went to the Marine recruiting office in New York City’s lower Manhattan, there was already a two-block line waiting for it to open.
Things were so hectic that recruiting offices were closed down until the next day. The Marines announced that they would open at 7:30 instead of the normal 9 a.m.
(When I finally reached a tough-looking recruiting sergeant, he listened to me claim that I was old enough to enlist — then asked for a birth certificate to prove it. My Marine career ended. )
As news of the Japanese attack spread, the most vehement of the anti-war activists immediately lined up behind our country.
Montana Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, a fiery leader of the America First movement, summed up the thinking of most isolationists: “The only thing, now, is to do our best to kick the hell out of those Japs.”
Alongside an anti-war cartoon that it was too late to pull from the partly pre-printed edition being distributed after the attack, the New York Daily News editorial declared: “When you are attacked, there is nothing to do but fight. And when a nation gets into war, the way to fight it is to fight to the hilt, with the remorseless aim of winning the war.”
In the movie Tora, Tora, Tora, the Japanese admiral who commanded the bombing of Pearl Harbor lamented: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
The author will do a follow-up article on the United States at war. He watched the scene as few could. As one of the first USO entertainers, Charlie spent the first year of WWII playing at bases from coast-to-coast and border-to-boarder. He next lived in war-time New York City and Washington, D.C. before his naval service in the Pacific.
Charles Wiley is a 95-year-old World War II veteran with over 65 years experience as a military correspondent and lecturer.
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