It is to The Legal Genealogist‘s everlasting shame that there is no answer to one question there should be an answer to.
Where were my family members — my grandparents, my parents, my aunts and uncles — where were they on that day?
In just a few days, this nation will be marking the 75th anniversary of one of those defining moments of an entire generation.
A moment that literally changed the world, for every single member of my family and for everyone they knew.
And yet, to my chagrin, I realize that I never asked.
Not one of them.
Not even once.
Where were they — what were they doing — how did they learn what had happened — on that fateful day… Sunday… December 7, 1941?
We all know, from the history books, what happened 75 years ago this coming Wednesday:
On that day, Japanese planes attacked the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii Territory. The bombing killed more than 2,300 Americans. It completely destroyed the American battleship U.S.S. Arizona and capsized the U.S.S. Oklahoma. The attack sank or beached a total of twelve ships and damaged nine others. 160 aircraft were destroyed and 150 others damaged. The attack took the country by surprise, especially the ill-prepared Pearl Harbor base.
“AIR RAID ON PEARL HARBOR X THIS IS NOT DRILL.”
The ranking United States naval officer in Pearl Harbor, known as the Commander-in-Chief Pacific, sent this hurried dispatch to all major navy commands and fleet units. Radio stations receiving the news interrupted regular broadcasts to announce the tragic news to the American public. Most people knew what the attack meant for the U.S. even before Roosevelt’s official announcement the next day. The U.S. would declare war on Japan.
The U.S. was already close to joining the war, but in an attempt to preserve its stance of isolation and neutrality, it had only committed to sending war supplies on loan to the Allied forces, mainly Great Britain, France, and Russia. Within days, Japan’s allies, Germany and Italy (known collectively as the Axis powers), declared war on the United States. December 7, the “date which will live in infamy,” brought the United States into World War II.1
The attack began at 7:53 a.m. Hawaii time with the arrival of the first wave of attacking planes; the second wave hit at 8:55 a.m. and it was over before 10 a.m.2… that meant it was already afternoon in Midland, Texas, where my mother — then 15 — lived with her parents and siblings, and in Chicago, Illinois, where my father — then 20 — and his parents were living.
Radio broadcasts throughout the afternoon reported the attacks — we can listen to some of these today:
• Those listening to the football game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers on WOR radio heard the game interrupted at 2:26 p.m. with a news bulletin: “The White House announces Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.”4
• There’s even a collection, “Pearl Harbor Attacks – As It Happened – Radio Broadcasts,” that’s online at YouTube.5
So the historical record is there, readily accessible, for us to review and to incorporate into our family histories.
What’s missing… what I can never capture now… is the personal side of this story.
My father’s parents were dead before I was born. My mother’s father when I was just 19. I didn’t get into genealogy until most of the surviving older members of my family were gone: both of my parents, my one surviving grandparent, even some of my aunts and uncles.
Once I got into genealogy, I focused — as beginners do — more on who my ancestors were than on what the living members of the family could tell me about their own lives.
And while I paid attention to the who of family history, one by one, those living members began to disappear. Taking their stories, their memories, with them.
There is, today, only one living member of my entire family who was old enough to remember that day, 75 years ago, when the world changed.
And he is 88 years old and in poor health.
I’ve asked my youngest aunt, his youngest sibling, to see if she can find a time when his body, mind and soul are up to the task, and to ask him about that day… but it won’t surprise me if that time never comes.
And I am left where I began.
With a generation of memories… gone missing.
Not one more second.
If there’s anyone in your family still living who can tell you about that day, and you haven’t asked yet…
If there’s one club a genealogist doesn’t ever want to join, it’s the club of those with a generation of memories… gone missing.
Image: The USS Arizona (BB-39) burning after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, National Archives.
- “The Japanese Attacked Pearl Harbor: December 7, 1941,” America’s Story from America’s Library, The Library of Congress (http://www.americaslibrary.gov : accessed 3 Dec 2016). ↩
- “Attack at Pearl Harbor, 1941,” EyeWitness to History (www.eyewitnesstohistory.com : accessed 3 Dec 2016). ↩
- “‘This Is No Joke: This Is War’: A Live Radio Broadcast of the Attack on Pearl Harbor,” History Matters, George Mason University (http://historymatters.gmu.edu/ : accessed 2 Dec 2016), citing Michigan State University, G. Robert Vincent Voice Library. ↩
- “The Bombing of Pearl Harbor,” Radio Days (http://www.otr.com/ : accessed 2 Dec 2016). ↩
- “Pearl Harbor Attacks – As It Happened – Radio Broadcasts,” YouTube.com (https://www.youtube.com/ : accessed 2 Dec 2016). ↩
- “FDR DECLARES WAR (12/8/41) – Franklin Delano Roosevelt, WWII, Infamy Speech,” YouTube.com (https://www.youtube.com/ : accessed 2 Dec 2016). ↩