What I was doing while history was being made
The 65th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor got me to thinking about what I was doing and where I was when that and other historic landmark events occurred.
December 7, 1941 was a Sunday, and I was at home that afternoon doing what I always told my children not to do. I was a high school student doing my home work and listening to the radio at the same time. I was listening to a broadcast of a New York Giants football game being played at Yankee Stadium. I think their opponents were the Washington Redskins.
When they were doing their homework, my children listened to the kind of music that had yet to be written when I was a boy. But no matter the difference in the programs drawing our attention, I'm sure that both my concentration and my childrens' were adversely affected by the distractions. Looking back 65 years, I don't remember why I even had home work to do for school, because I was scheduled to graduate the following month. The outbreak of war, of course, was to alter the direction of my life over the next several years.
The next historic landmark event that I remember was VE Day, May 8, 1945, when Germany surrended to the Allies, and the war in Europe was over. I was then in the Army serving in India, and our war against Japan was not finished. So our celebration was muted as my buddies and I went about our normal activities.
As my outfit's company clerk, I was handling conventional military office duties. I was also preparing for an expected visitor from the Army's Inspector-General's office who periodically came to check on the efficiency of our operations. But while the war was being fought around the world, the inspectors usually seemed to have an absurd concern about whether I was properly filing Army Regulations and amendments in a loose-leaf binder. The Army often functioned in weird ways.
A far more pressing matter for the men in my outfit, the 903rd Signal Co., developed quickly after VE Day. With the war in Europe now over, the Army planned a stronger focus on the fight against the Japanese in our part of the world, southeast Asia. Japan occupied territory stretching from eastern and southern Burma down the Malay peninsula to Singapore.
There were very few American infantry troops based in India and Burma. To ship combat troops no longer needed in Europe and reinforcements from the U.S. would obviously take time. A plan was therefore drafted to quickly train outfits like ours, which had never been in combat, for an invasion of the western coast of the Malay peninsula. Specifically, we were told that we were to be converted into an amphibious landing force.
Before our training began, however, another historic landmark event occurred. The atomic bomb was dropped, and on August 15, 1945, Japan surrended. There was no longer a need for the 903rd Signal Co. to invade the western coast of the Malay peninsula.
Our reaction to VJ Day was considerably more boisterous than it had been to VE Day. Some one sneaked a bottle of whiskey into our barracks. For the first and only time in my life I became so drunk that I passed out. I do not remember anything about that day.
But when I was finally sober, I was pleasantly startled to discover that, in my role as company clerk, I had prepared the daily morning report that all military units are required to submit each day to higher headquarters. The report discloses the number of men on active duty, sick call, detached duty elsewhere, and other personnel information.
The report is prepared in duplicate. The morning report for the day that I had been too drunk to remember had been properly prepared and submitted. I did not recall having written the report, and there was no one else who was qualified or authorized to prepare it. So I had evidently done my job while in a drunken stupor. I never did celebrate a happy event in that condition again.
A more recent historic landmark event was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. When the news was revealed, I was having lunch at the National Press Club at 14th and F Streets in Washington, D.C. About an hour earlier, I had flown into town from New York City, where I had covered the annual convention of the AFL-CIO as a reporter for the Newhouse newspaper chain. A day or two before, President Kennedy had been the featured speaker at the labor federation's convention.
As soon as I heard the news of his assassination, I rushed to the Newhouse News Bureau office, a few blocks north on 14th Street, carrying my luggage with me. When I arrived, the bureau's White House correspondent, who was covering the President's visit in Dallas, was phoning in details of what he had learned so far about the killing. I was quickly assigned to write an article about previous Presidential assassinations. I don't recall whether I did very much with my reporting about the President's speech at the AFL-CIO convention.
The Al-Qaeda attack on New York's World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001 occurred as I was just awakening from a night's sleep. By now I was retired, and sleeping late in the morning had become a feature of my retirement routine. My wife had awakened earlier and was watching television in our bedroom. Still groggy, I could not believe what I was seeing on the TV. I assumed that the plane crashing into the first of the towers was accidental. Within minutes it became clear that there had been no accident and that a new era--a war on terrorism--was about to begin.