9/11 has eclipsed for many the importance of December 7, 1941, when the Japanese Navy launched its surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. In our day, the memory of Pearl Harbor is at risk of becoming a “small thing.” I think this is a mistake.
A nation which forgets its trauma is doomed to respond to new catastrophes as if it had never healed. As if it had not grown. Such nations become amnesic and reactive.
History turns on pivot points like these: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914; Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941; and the attacks on September 11, 2001.
And for those who played a personal part in traumatic history, the horror never quite goes away. Here, then, is the story of one Pearl Harbor survivor.
Lest we forget.
“What day it is?” Mr. Wallace asked, leaning heavily against his desk. He taught 7th-grade English at Greely Jr. High School in Cumberland, Maine, in the early 1990s. He also had a wooden leg. We joked privately that he’d lost it in the war.
“It’s Tuesday!” said a dark-haired boy from the back row. A titter of laughter spasmed through the class.
The boy’s name was Andrew. Later that winter he would piss on the bathroom radiator and then swallow a bottle of pills. We saw paramedics in purple plastic gloves wheel him out to an ambulance and rush him away. It left a horrible odor that lingered for months. The piss, I mean. Andrew was back in school the next week.
Mr. Wallace gave Andrew a long look. He must have thought we were savages.
“Today is December 7th,” he said. “Pearl Harbor Day. The day that brought a reluctant and ill-prepared nation into World War II. And in memory of the 2,400 men who died there, I’ve invited a guest speaker as I do every year. A sailor who was there and can tell you what he saw.”
“Oh God,” Andrew muttered. Seats creaked as kids leaned back in their chairs.
Into the room walked an old man with a friendly face, pink cheeks, and sunspots on his forearms. He wore tan corduroys, a Hawaiian shirt, and a blue Navy service cap of the type I’d seen my grandfather wear, with a golden profile of a destroyer.
“This is Bert Davis,” Mr. Wallace said. “He was an engineer on the USS Selfridge, a destroyer at Pearl Harbor. Bert spent 20 years in the Navy before he retired to become an oceanographic researcher. He worked with Jacques Cousteau. You should listen to what he says about this day.” He hobbled over to the radiator by the window and sat on it. Then he turned to Bert. “Floor’s yours.”
Bert looked around at us and smiled hugely. “You kids make me feel old. I guess five marriages will do that to you!”
“Rock on!” Andrew said from the back of the room. “Get some!”
Guys in the class laughed. Bert winked at Andrew and in his face I saw the faint outline of a younger man, full of piss and vinegar and raging testosterone. I hadn’t ever thought that World War II vets were interested in girls. I always thought of them as old and musty, like history books in the back of the library. Some with broken spines and torn pages, all rarely checked out.
Bert’s voice, when he spoke, was hoarse and passionate and it carried a weight that all of us youngsters lacked. He said that his destroyer had escorted another ship back to Pearl Harbor just in time for the attack. He was berthed belowdecks when the first explosions rocked his vessel. The guns on the Selfridge opened up and Bert raced topside in time to see the USS Arizona explode and start listing. From a distance he saw men floundering in the harbor, saw them struggle, saw them sink. He volunteered to look for survivors. “The rest of the day,” Bert said, “I just spent fishing bodies from the harbor with a boathook.”
The class grew quieter than I’d ever heard it.
“We was circling around in our launch,” Bert said, “just looking for bobbing heads or vests. Life vests, you know. There was slicks of oil that was burning and we was dodging them fires the best we could and listening for cries for help.”
Mr. Wallace shifted his weight against the radiator and his peg leg chunked on the floor.
“We’re tooling along,” Bert said, “and I sees this sailor in the water just covered with grease so’s he’s blended in with the water. So I yells at my mate, I yells and I says, ‘Hey, we got one to starboard,’ so he motors over and we come up real gentle to this sailor and when I reach down to haul him in I sees he is all burned to hell just like a marshmallow left in the fire, just all crisp and gristle, and so I try to grab his arms real careful but I have to pull hard enough to get him over the gunnel and so I pulls”—his voice caught jagged and jumped an octave and he paused and pulled a red handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his eyes and blew his nose.
In the classroom there were twenty-five students and you could hear the hot air blowing from the radiator and that was it.
The old man dabbed at his eyes and then shoved the rag in his pocket and shook his head as if shaking off a memory and then he cleared his throat and said, “So I pulls and I pulls and damned if his skin don’t pull off his bones like sleeves from a jacket.”
His face twisted with pain and I could see the scene as if it had happened right there in the room and the linoleum was burning oil in the harbor and the radiator was the sound of engines and the hiss of steam from boilers going under.
“The poor kid,” Bert said, “the poor kid just screams and screams and I got no choice, I just keep haulin’ him in until he comes in over the gunnel and we lay him down on the deck with his skin piled up around his wrists like greasy dish cloths and him screamin’ fit to wake Jerusalem.” He paused and cleared his throat and somewhere a bell rang but nobody moved. Not even Andrew.
Outside the classroom I could hear kids shouting and laughing and lockers opening and then slamming shut.
Bert shook his head and clutched at his handkerchief and then snorted. “That was a long trip,” he said. “What an awful long trip that was. And then we went out again. And then again. Mostly we just found bodies. Some of the others was burned so bad they died before we made it to shore.” His wrinkled hands were working hard at the pleats of his corduroys. He looked up at our class of thirteen-year-olds and scanned us with watering eyes and finally he looked at the floor and sighed.
“I still have nightmares about that one boy.”
Congress declared war on the Empire of Japan shortly after noon on December 8, 1941. Nazi Germany declared war on the United States on December 11. The war cost the United States over one million casualties.
Bert Davis died at the Maine Veterans Home in South Paris on August 30, 2013.