A year at war

September 07, 2002

ON DEC. 7, 1942, Americans had little time for reflection.

U.S. and British bombers had just conducted the largest raids of the war on Germany.

On Guadalcanal, a band of Marine jungle fighters had overrun five Japanese posts, killing 400 enemy soldiers, while losing 17 of their own.

In the snows of Russia on Dec. 7, the Soviet Army drove Nazi forces out of the city of Rzhev, not far from Moscow, and, to the south, the battle of Stalingrad was beginning to take shape.

On the home front, gas, tires, coffee and sugar were rationed. To ensure a labor supply, the maximum draft age was lowered from 45 to 38. (But that meant that all men under 38 were subject to call-up.) Federal offices were to be heated to no more than 68 degrees, though an investigation by The Sun found many as warm as 76. Earned income was capped, by law, at $25,000 a year.

On the first anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, newspapers and radio were not telling Americans how other Americans felt about it. They were not delving for meaning. There was a war on, and that's all anyone needed to know.

How distant and serious and vivid it all seems, 60 years later. A peculiar aspect of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is that Americans were able to witness them, through the medium of television, in their own homes, over and over. Yet very few have had the chance to do anything since, to engage in the war on terrorism. Life, for most, has just gone on. Pearl Harbor, in contrast, was a distant speck in the Pacific, but within the next year the war had come home to everyone.

The Japanese attack was not, of course, simply forgotten a year later. On Dec. 6, 1942, a Sunday, The Sun ran a banner headline: "Navy Tells Full Pearl Harbor Story." That was an overstatement, as future historians would attest, but it did reveal the extent of the damage there - and it was considerably greater than the Japanese themselves had thought at the time. That was something like Osama bin Laden's reaction to the World Trade Center attack - he never actually imagined that the buildings would fall down. The toll, in both cases, was much worse than the perpetrators expected.

But then the quick recovery: Just as New Yorkers cheered the astonishingly speedy cleanup of the World Trade Center site, Americans learned in the Navy report that more than half the ships damaged at Pearl Harbor, including some that had sunk to the bottom, had been repaired and were back on the line in less than a year. (One ship, though, stayed where it had come to rest: the USS Arizona, its gravesite today a fitting and worthy memorial, even in an otherwise busy harbor. )

On Dec. 7, 1942, the Stewart and Co. department store, once a Howard Street stalwart, ran an ad remembering Pearl Harbor and urging readers to turn in their hosiery and scrap metal, and to buy war bonds.

And the payoff? In the first year after the attack, according to the Office of War Information, the United States produced 49,000 planes, 32,000 tanks, 17,000 anti-aircraft guns and more than 8 million tons of new ships. In a year it had surpassed the total output of the Axis nations.

The U.S. military, which had already gone into a rapid build-up in 1941, nearly tripled in size in 1942, from 2 million to 5.4 million men and women in uniform.

It was a time of mobilization and shared sacrifice. Today, most Americans can do little about Sept. 11, beyond working and reworking its memory. The pain and shock of that day were no less than the pain and shock of Pearl Harbor. But except for the families of a few thousand soldiers, we are living a war that seems to require nothing of us. There was a sense of purpose in 1942; where is today's?

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