Let's remember Pearl Harbor . . .

Joseph Gallagher

December 04, 1991|By Joseph Gallagher

Let's remember Pearl Harbor as we go to meet the foe;

Let's remember Pearl Harbor as we did the Alamo.

We will always remember how they died for liberty.

Let's remember Pearl Harbor and go on to victory.

DTC SINCE the average age of Americans today is 32, most of us don't "remember Pearl Harbor," as the instant war song once urged. But not only do I remember the event; it is the earliest memory I have to which I can now assign a sure calendar date.

I was a 12-year-old Baltimorean. I had taken my little sister, Mary Jo, to the York Theater on Greenmount Avenue to see a Sunday afternoon screening of Deanna Durbin in "It Started with Eve." Years later I was to read that this singing star was Winston Churchill's favorite.

As we headed home for supper in the early darkness I could hear newsboys yelling, "Extra! Extra! Read all about it!" When we reached our nearby row house at 403 East 20th St., I asked my older brother, Frank, what the "Extra!" was about. "The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor." I'm sure I didn't know who or what or where Pearl Harbor was.

I was young and didn't make the trip to downtown Baltimore very often, especially alone. But the next day was special -- it was the Catholic Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Since that was a holiday at St. Ann's parish school, I had arranged to have lunch with a lady friend of mine who was then working near Mercy Hospital.

When I first met Ruby she worked at a High's ice cream store at North Avenue and Barclay Street. From time to time I would go to a neighborhood bank and get change for her. Once, in order to provide me with the money I needed to see a movie at the Parkway, she patiently and generously fished three "free cone" certificates from the bottom of a bunch of cones and exchanged them for 15 cents from the cash register.

In mid-morning of the day after Pearl Harbor I took the No. 8 streetcar downtown. On board I saw something I had never encountered before: Everybody was talking to everybody. There were no strangers that day, just fellow Americans united in outrage. Public calamity is indeed a mighty leveler.

No doubt about it: We Yanks were going to come out swinging, and in no time we were going to beat those sneaky Japs and knock out their buck teeth. (A decade later two former Japanese soldiers would become my esteemed classmates at St. Mary's Seminary in Roland Park. One of them, Paul Yasuda, is now the archbishop of Osaka.)

Downtown, I first attended mass at St. Alphonsus Church at Park Avenue and Saratoga Street and heard two sermons -- one in Lithuanian and one in English. Then I walked to the New Amsterdam Casualty Co. on St. Paul Street and waited for Ruby.

She took me to a drug store luncheonette nearby. The place was crowded and noisy. Everyone, I'm sure, was talking about Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, around 12:35 p.m., someone turned up a store radio to full volume. A voice announced: "Ladies and gentlemen: the president of the United States . . ."

There was a sudden hush. Unknowingly, I was about to hear one of the most famous speeches in U.S. history. In his magnificent patrician voice, Franklin Delano Roosevelt began addressing Congress, the nation and the world: "Yesterday, December 7, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy . . . " No one stirred during

the brief speech of less than 500 words. At the end of the six-minute address, the only president I had ever known asked Congress to declare war.

Roosevelt's somber words were followed by "The Star-Spangled Banner." We all stood and sang, as much as emotion allowed. I imagine that all across the nation and the world, Americans by the millions were similarly standing in one of the indelible moments of their lives. (Hundreds of thousands of those who stood transfixed at that instant would fall in battle over the next 44 months.) Rarely in my life have I experienced a moment so electrifying and communal.

Within weeks a song was copyrighted with the title "Remember Pearl Harbor." The words were by Don Reid, the music by Sammy Kaye. By mid-February it reached the top 10 and became a best-selling record of 1942, a record whose text and melody are still fresh in my mind.

Remember Pearl Harbor? Who could forget it?

Joseph Gallagher is a priest of the Baltimore Archdiocese.

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