75 years later, Pearl Harbor remains a touchstone for Greatest Generation
David P. “Buck” Morris Jr. has suffered only a few sleepless nights since Dec. 7, 1941.
Morris was a signalman aboard the destroyer USS Phelps anchored in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. On the morning of the cataclysmic attack by the Japanese, Morris was sitting on his bunk, sliding on his shoes. He heard the blast of the first bomb, then hurried foot steps and intelligible shouts on deck. A fellow crew member lifted the hatch to his bunk and yelled, “The Japs are attacking.”
A Japanese plane soared above the ship’s mast. Morris could see the pilot, wearing a white scarf around his neck, waving. The harbor was engulfed in billowing black smoke.
“You remember it. That’s all,” said Morris, now 94 and living in a secluded double-wide in the woods of Ruffin. “It’s something you don’t forget.”
For Morris and other survivors of America’s Greatest Generation, the attack on Pearl Harbor remains the most defining moment of their lives, 75 years and multiple international conflicts later.
“I don’t think anything after Pearl Harbor has come anywhere close to having the same affect on the American people.” Morris said.
On the eve of the attack, most Americans were reluctant to get involved in another disastrous global conflict, though war had been raging for years overseas. Much of Western Europe was under occupation by Nazi Germany while Eastern Europe was embroiled in the largest land war in human history. Imperial Japan had invaded Northern China. But in “fortress America,” flanked by two great oceans on its eastern and western coasts, Americans felt insulated from threats abroad.
“Pearl Harbor showed definitively that idea was quaint in the era of technology,” said Dave Snyder, a history professor at the University of South Carolina. The Pearl Harbor attack left Americans with a sudden sense of vulnerability. The ambush claimed the lives of 2,403 Americans, including 25 from South Carolina.
Invoked in radio broadcasts and political speeches, “Remember Pearl Harbor” became a rallying cry for American intervention overseas. And public opinion changed prophetically.
The attack on Pearl Harbor “made a lot of people more cognizant of the possibility of us being defeated and our lives being changed,” said 94-year-old Bill Cart, a former Marine Corps pilot who flew Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bombers during World War II and now volunteers at Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum in Mount Pleasant.
“I think a lot of people woke up to the fact that we’re not alone just because we have oceans on either side of the United States. They suddenly realized we are susceptible to attack.”
Dick Whitaker, another Patriots Point volunteer, was 15 when his parents called him into their living room in Saugerties, N.Y., to listen to a broadcast on the cabinet radio. The announcer described a “sneak attack” by the Japanese. Whitaker, now 90, said he wasn’t scared; he was angry.
“I remember asking my father when the broadcast was over, ‘Do you think I’ll ever go into the Marine Corps?’ And he said, ‘I hope not’,” he recalled this week. “I was secretly thinking, ‘I hope I do.’ ”
After Whitaker graduated from high school three years later, he joined the Marines just as he’d hoped. He fought in the battle in the Battle of Okinawa, an 82-day assault on Japan’s Ryukyu Islands. Private First Class Whitaker spent all but two of those day burrowed in a fox hole - he spent those two days in the hospital after he was shot in the hand while asking his brother in arms for a cigarette light.
World War II was a “great war,” Whitaker said, because the country mobilized behind it.
“The country got together. It was like a common cause. Everybody was ready to go. Everybody wanted to help,” Whitaker said. “Women went to work in factories and replaced men. People enlisted, people were drafted, people took pride in what they were doing and what they were engaged in which was to attack back and make Japan pay for what they did to us.”
Andrew Kispert, a Marine Corps veteran, doesn’t have any memories of the attack on Pearl Harbor. But he does remember the look on his freshman Spanish teacher’s face, white with shock, 15 years ago when she relayed the news to her class that the World Trade Center had been deliberately struck with a passenger airplane.
He and his classmates assembled in the gymnasium at their Florence high school, where they watched on live TV the wreckage in New York City. A second plane slammed into the other tower. Both collapsed into a heap of rubble.
Now a 30-year-old veteran of the Marine Corps and graduate student at The Citadel studying international politics and military affairs, Kispert joined the military right after high school, emboldened by the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
He was deployed three times overseas and served one tour in Afghanistan, where friends of his died in combat.
“When Pearl Harbor happened, our country became completely unified. We had a common enemy and everyone stood and did their part,” said Kispert. “When 9/11 happened, it was the same rebirth of patriotism in our country.”