Veterans of the 'day of infamy' worry that most Americans give too little thought to the significance of Dec. 7, 1941


December 07, 1990|By Henry Scarupa

"Remember Pearl Harbor!"

Those words united the nation 49 years ago after Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. But today, as veterans of that "day of infamy" pause to mark the anniversary, many fear the rousing cry has all but faded from the minds of most Americans.

"Nobody remembers it," sighs 68-year-old George W. Waggoner of Essex, one of 165 members of the Maryland chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association (PHSA), made up of men who lived through the aerial attack. When Mr. Waggoner visits public schools to talk about the experience, he is appalled at how little aware young people are of Dec. 7's significance.

"The only thing about the war they know is the fact we dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima," he says. "We're kind of a lost cause."

That point was made a few years back for Anthony J. DiLorenzo of Rockville, who is president of PHSA's Maryland chapter. During the annual convention, a 15-year-old girl asked, "You people with the hats, who do you represent?"

The veterans, out in force, were wearing the association's distinctive white and blue-trimmed campaign hat. Mr. DiLorenzo explained the men were Pearl Harbor veterans, only to have the girl blithely ask, "What's that?"

Noting that even President George Bush accidentally gave the wrong date for the attack, he says, "Most Americans are not giving enough thought to Dec. 7. I'm sure my contemporaries won't ever forget, but what about the young people coming up?"

Nearly 50 years later, Pearl Harbor survivors are not unanimous in their feelings about the Japanese -- although many say their economic dominance rankles. Nor is every veteran concerned about the lack of national memory. For 73-year-old Russell C. Urich of Catonsville, who served with an Army anti-aircraft unit at Pearl Harbor, the passage of nearly a half-century has softened these views.

"It's about time it be forgotten like a lot of other things that have gone on," he says of the 1941 attack.

"We can carry bitter memories forever, but what good does it do? We've gotten into a lot of other entanglements. We didn't start that one, but it's easy to misdirect blame. Everything has two sides. Looking back 50 years, there was quite a lot of economic sanctions on Japan by the U.S. To some extent the war was forced on them."

In the eyes of most veterans, the Japanese are no longer the villains depicted in World War II cartoons and movies. They tend to place blame for the conflict more on the Japanese government than on the people themselves. They sense the irony that Japan has risen from defeat to become an economic superpower, and feel America's complacency is partly at fault.

"In 1950, during the Korean War, I was stationed in Japan and had a wonderful association with the people," says Mr. DiLorenzo, a 20-year Navy veteran. "I have nothing against the people, and I have nothing against the progress they're making. It's our fault. We can't sell our rice or our computers over there and yet they're selling automobiles over here. We need to redirect our national policy."

Adds Gerald W. Hamill, a 71-year-old Baltimorean who was an Army Air Corps mechanic at the time of the raid, "I'm not angry with the Japanese people, but it does upset me when I see we're going into the Persian Gulf so the Japanese can have their oil. And they don't want to do a hell of a lot about it. They seem to have all the money in the world through our assistance, and they're taking advantage of us. I think we're damned naive."

Mr. Waggoner, perhaps because he fought in the bloody jungle campaigns that included hand-to-hand combat, still takes a hard line.

"I can't stand them around," he says bluntly of the Japanese people. "If they come in I have to get up and leave. I just don't want them around me."

For many survivors, the Japanese car symbolizes that nation's economic dominance, and they rebel at the thought of driving one. Seeing a Mitsubishi on the road, Mr. Hamill is reminded of the vaunted Zero fighter, an enemy plane manufactured during World War II by Mitsubishi.

"I wouldn't buy a Japanese car, not even if it was twice as good as anAmerican car," he declares. "I just wish everybody in this country felt that way. It would make a hell of a difference in the economy, wouldn't it?"

Mr. DiLorenzo agrees and also won't buy a Japanese import. At the same time he recognizes the gesture has limited impact.

"I find it hard to tell someone else not to buy, like my children," he adds. "I can't dictate to them. They say the cars are cheaper."

In addition to taking part in today's observances across the coun

try, many Pearl Harbor survivors are attending the association's national convention in Albuquerque, N.M.

Yesterday the group elected as its new national president Gerald A. Glaubitz, mayor of Morningside, Md., near Andrews Air Force Base, and a Navy veteran who served aboard the USS San Francisco during the Pearl Harbor attack.

As time goes by, the group's membership has decreased to 11,000.

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