In Baltimore, they asked, 'Is this IT?'

Gwinn Owens

December 06, 1991|By Gwinn Owens

THE unexpected had happened.

Or was it expected? Consider Baltimore on the eve of the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. The shipyards and the giant Glenn L. Martin aircraft plant were working 24-hour shifts, seven days a week. For what reason, all this buildup of arms?

Some 350 years earlier, Shakespeare described a buildup for war so precisely that he might well have been living in Baltimore in 1941. The speaker is Marcellus, a character in "Hamlet": . . . why such daily cast of brazen cannon,

And foreign mart for implements of war;

Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task

Does not divide the Sunday from the week;

What might be toward, that this sweaty haste

Doth make the night joint laborer with the day?

The answer to Marcellus' question is that America was expecting war. By historical accident, I was in the eye of the local storm, working for the burgeoning Maryland Drydock Co., at that time the nation's largest ship repair yard. Next door the Bethlehem-Fairfield yard became America's most prolific builder of Liberty ships. North of the Patapsco, Glenn L. Martin's was building bombers and flying boats in the world's largest aircraft plant.

It was an industrial glory that Baltimore had never known before and would never know again.

At the main entrance of each plant was a billboard ordered by the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt: "Part of the Arsenal of Democracy." By the tens of thousands workers surged into the city, mainly from the South, to grab high-paying war jobs as welders, riggers, riveters or just common laborers. Some of them lived three or four families to an apartment.

Even before Pearl Harbor the congestion was appalling. Afterward it became chaotic. I lived on Calvert Street near North Avenue. In order to get to Fairfield by 8:30 a.m. I had to get on the sardine-packed streetcar at Charles Street and North Avenue by 6:30. Just crossing the Hanover Street Bridge sometimes took 40 minutes.

Yet this war boom had an inevitability about it. Those of us who were teen-agers in the 1930s had grown up in the shadow of war. Hitler had come to power in 1933 and each year his ranting became more hysterical. On the other side of the world the Japanese were swallowing Manchuria, chewing at China and threatening U.S. interests in the Far East.

"Sooner or later we're going to have a war with Japan," my father said, around 1936. His casualness terrified me. I was no hero. If there were to be a war, I prayed it would be when I was too young or too old.

It wasn't.

The European war had started in 1939. In the spring of 1940 Hitler's Blitzkrieg had subdued the continent. In June of 1941 he had launched a campaign against the Soviet Union. In the West, Great Britain stood alone.

We were at the Sunday lunch table on Dec. 7 when my father got a phone call from the newsroom of The Sun. What I had feared for so many years had happened; it was war and I was 20.

Baltimoreans worried that the bombs would start falling. One night, about a week after Pearl Harbor, we were all startled by a violent explosion. I joined others in rushing out onto Calvert Street. "Is this it?" people asked. No. It was a freak December thunderstorm.

In the shipyards, security was tightened. That was part of my job -- taking pictures and assembling identification badges for the .. daily cascade of new employees. There seemed never to be enough. Once a man standing in the employment line keeled over. The yard's doctor pronounced him dead of a heart attack, and he lay there where I could see him, my first war casualty. I had never seen a dead person before.

Some of the rough-edged blue-collar people I worked with were contemptuous of me. "What are you worried about? You're a college man. You won't have to go."

They were wrong. Like some 12 million other young men, I forfeited years of my life -- three years and four months, to be exact. Only the fact that all my friends suffered comparable dislocation and lost years mitigated the perils and privations of what the Japanese had set in motion.

Now, when the great shipyards are long gone, should we remember Pearl Harbor? Yes, in terms of those who lost their lives then and in the war that followed. Otherwise Americans should leave it to history. It is futile and irrational to blame today's Japanese for the evils of their grandparents. Yes, it was a dastardly attack, but so was every act of invasion, pillage, burning and bombing that has plagued the human race since the destruction of Troy.

I find it a hopeful sign that 50 years after the Japanese attack, the site of the Maryland Drydock Co. is used to store Toyotas.

Gwinn Owens is the retired editor of this page.

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