The Block Island Times

Pearl Harbor Day: Never forget

By Judy Tierney | Dec 07, 2011

I planned to write a blog on health care this week, but today, December 7, is the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day, and I’m thinking of my Uncle Leo, who was there.

A few days ago I was sorting through photographs that were passed down to me by my parents and I found a picture of him in his Air Force uniform. He is standing, arms at his side, in front of a large tent. The tent is raised off the ground with a planked floor. Inside it, a metal framed cot with a trunk in front of it is visible. On the back of the picture, Uncle Leo wrote: “Bellows Field, T.H., Sept, 1941. The sun is strong here, need a haircut.”

That photo was taken just months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Uncle Leo was still there when the Japanese attacked. He survived.

He was set to attend the ceremonies this year. Unfortunately, he passed away at the age of 93 on October 17. The clock he made in commemoration did go to Pearl Harbor, however. My cousin Jack told me he would present it to the group for his father.

Uncle Leo was born in Brooklyn and remained there through most of his life. He was my father’s youngest brother. The family was from somewhere in Russia or Lithuania, and had emigrated to escape pogroms (attacks) against Jews. The emigration was conducted in two parts. First my grandfather came to this country and worked to earn enough money to send for my grandmother with my father and my Uncle Sam, both born in the old country. They came in 1913, and subsequently Uncle Leo and Uncle Louis were born here.

Leo wasn’t the only member of my family to serve in World War II. My mother’s brother Otto also sent home a picture of himself in army uniform at Camp Robinson in Arkansas. Uncle Otto was the last of his siblings to leave Vienna, Austria, to escape the Nazis. And, unlike his three sisters who left before Hitler marched in, he left afterward. I was told he left on the very day the Nazis came to get him. My eldest aunt, who with her American husband brought everyone over here, told me at Otto’s funeral that there was a Jewish underground in Vienna and Otto was in it. I wished I had learned that while Otto was still alive and could say more.

I always wondered what his role was in the service. The family joke in the l950s was that they all worried during his hitch in the army that sentries would shoot at him some night when he returned to the base and they heard his accent, the thickest in our family. But now I wonder whether he was one of the Jewish refugees trained in the armed forces to interrogate prisoners of war and to go behind enemy lines as translators. A wonderful film, "The Ritchie Boys," chronicles the role those refugees played during World War II.

My own father did not serve in the armed forces in World War II. He was older, had two children, and had already served in the Coast Guard as a radioman. According to my mother, he wanted to go and she needed to give permission, but frightened to be alone, she refused. Perhaps it’s a good thing he didn’t go. He worked on the development of radar at General Electric instead.

I didn’t realize the importance of his job until I went to Churchill’s Bunker in London last year. Radar was the secret weapon that finally allowed the British to “see” when the German Air Force was coming, and meet them in battle before they arrived to drop bombs. Had the British been beaten by the Germans, who knows what would have ensued for us.

The generation that fought for freedom in World War II is aging and their numbers are dwindling. Our children and grandchildren have other concerns and have moved on. Three generations beyond that terrible war, we are best friends with the Germans and Japanese. Our children intermarry and we engage in commerce. The memories are fading.

In recent years, we don’t think of the United States of America anymore. The country is divided into red states and blue states. Political pundits hurl insults and lies at each other, and the feeling of unity is gone. Perhaps we should all take a breath and remember what the World War II generation fought for, for freedom and diversity of thought, religion, speech — and try to get along.

To view Uncle Leo’s description of the attack on his base, go to YouTube and key in Leo Roberts, Never Forget.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Gloria Redlich | Dec 07, 2011 14:15

Very interesting essay, Judy, offering wonderful insight into those who dealt directly with the demands of societies going to war.


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