From Dec. 7, 1941 until long after VJ Day and the end of World War II, Americans referred to the Japanese strike against Pearl Harbor as a "sneak attack." In his declaration of war before a joint session of Congress the next day, President Franklin Roosevelt captured the nation's shock and fury, promising it would be "a date which will live in infamy."
But on this 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day, with old war wounds healed and racial sensitivities heightened, the phrase used more often to describe that day is "surprise attack." For most Americans, the "infamy" of Dec. 7, 1941 has receded since Sept. 11, 2001.
The survivors of those doomed ships -- many from the Bay Area -- are mostly hard of hearing now, but the buzz and the boom of the bombs from that day still ring in the ears of John Tait of Concord, Ed Silveira of Hayward and Dempson Arellano of Antioch. Gordon Van Hauser, who lived in San Carlos until his death in 2008, often spoke of his service not in terms of fighting for his own life, but for the life of his country.
Readying for war
The Great Depression had dragged on for more than a decade by the time Tait went to the Navy's Oakland recruiting office in 1940 and enlisted. "Times were hard, and civilian life was not working for me," Tait says, sitting at his kitchen table in Concord, where he and his wife, Marge, settled after his 22 years in the Navy ended. The war in Europe had already
begun, and an appetite for more of it was in the air every time Tait's father switched on his ham radio.
"We didn't think they were good sailors, or that they had good ships," said Tait, now 91 beetling his busy white eyebrows as he talked about the Japanese. "Well, they turned out to be good seamen with good ships." During his final three years in the Navy, Tait was posted in Japan, where he and Marge taught English to Japanese self-defense forces. His students were often startled to learn where he had been on the first day of the war.
Aboard the USS Arizona
Today the ghost ship USS Arizona sits at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, the 1,102 sailors who perished seven decades ago entombed there for all time. On the evening of Dec. 6, 1941, a young Marine, Gordon Van Hauser took a liberty boat from his barracks to the Arizona, to have dinner with two friends from boot camp.
After chow Van Hauser and his buddies joined other sailors on the ship's fantail to watch a movie, which Van Hauser disliked so much he took a boat back to the base that night.
A lazy Sunday morning
Van Hauser was about to go on duty the next day, Dec. 7, when low-flying Japanese torpedo bombers -- headed for Battleship Row and the Arizona -- appeared out of a clear Hawaiian sky, rattling the Marines' rooftops and strafing the parade ground. "I took my rifle, which was a 1903 model Springfield, and we were firing .30-caliber ammunition...as the Japanese torpedo bombers came in," Van Hauser said in a video his son recorded before his death. Firing single-shot, bolt-action rifles scarcely better than muskets, he and about 800 other Marines brought down two or three Japanese zeroes, Van Hauser recalled, and watched them burst into flames.
Even as an 86-pound boy growing up in Hayward, Silveira could raise a 100-pound feed sack over his head. He recalls
this with overweening pride at 89, inviting anyone who questions his strength to punch him in the stomach. "I was a rowdy kid, no question," Silveira says. "I fought at the drop of a hat. Size meant nothing to me. It's the one who gets in the first hit."
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