Blogs, by their very nature, are preliminary. They are brief snapshots of one's thoughts--unrevised, unscripted, unpolished, and uninhibited. It is a rare "light" Sunday; the calm before the storm of about 200 essays that will come my way over the next few weeks, and I also realized that I had no digital record of my grandfather's interview.
Below are excerpts from my transcription of the original audio interview, recorded by myself at Rusty's home in Alamo, California, on February 8, 2004. For the purposes of readability, I edited out some of the awkward pauses in speech so that the text appears closer to the written word. For some reason I no longer have the original recording or transcript (I think one of my relatives has them). Rusty's stories move around a bit chronologically, but I did my best to preserve the flow of his thoughts while organizing them into coherent paragraphs. I offer my own reflections after the interview.
After Pearl Harbor, I went to Wake Island. The Secretary of the Navy, Mr. [William Franklin] Knox, told the world that we were gonna avenge Wake Island. So I was on a cruise ship that was carrying [US] Marines to Wake Island. We got within about 500 miles [of Wake Island] and we got a radio message that said, ‘this place looks like Tokyo Harbor. You’d better turn around and go back!’ So we turned around and we went back to Midway [Island]. I was on the first American ship in New Caledonia since 1936 and I stayed there for six months. After that we went to Oakland and [our ship] got repaired. And then we went to Esperitu Santo [in Vanuatu] where we were stationed as a supply ship.
After the war I came back [to the United States]. I ignored a naval opportunity because by that time I didn’t think I wanted to make the navy my career. Besides I wanted to go back to civilian life and the best way to do that was to go to V-12 [school]. Which I did. And I served there by going my first year to St. Mary’s College in Wanona, Minnesota and then transferred to the University of Minnesota. I decided to take flying lessons and I did that on the GI Bill. I never pursued it very far because I had a wife [Helen] and baby [Larry] and it didn’t seem like the thing I should be doing. Rather I should be protecting my family.
On the morning of December 7 , I was in bed. It was a quarter to eight. I had been on duty as a radioman all night. So I had gotten off duty, had breakfast and went to bed again. I could have stayed in bed, but I heard a strange radio message that was being played over and over. So I thought I’d go up and see what was goin’ on. I ran up the ladder to the flight deck and there was a plane flyin’ over with a big red circle under its wings, and I knew that, obviously, it wasn’t one of ours. That’s the first time that I knew something was happening.
I had only been on the ship two weeks. My commanders said, “Go to your battle stations!” I didn’t even know where mine was. So I finally looked that up and it said, “Forward King Post.” I didn’t even know what a king post was. It turns out that my job was to find and repair any radio antennas that had been shot down. And I did so. I wasn’t very happy that the Japanese were flying over us and dropping bombs. We got quite a few [bombs] because the [USS] Lexington had been behind us. None of ‘em hit us. I think there were some near misses as I recall. We didn’t have enough life jackets. So some officers sent me down below to get life jackets for anybody that didn’t have any. And that’s the extent of what I did – I repaired the antennas that were shot and stayed around and watched battleships burn.
When the bombing began, I was not scared at all. I thought it had to be some sort of a mock battle. I just couldn’t imagine anybody attacking Pearl Harbor. But I was damn afraid when I was at the king post and I didn’t feel very good when all of our battleships were burning on the other side of the island. I was scared, and so were most of my classmates, especially the older ones with families. I remember we were also a little bit afraid towards the end of the day because we thought that there would be other attacks. As a matter of fact, we listened to the radio and there were all kinds of rumors that there were going to be landings in San Diego and landings in Portland, Oregon. And so all of those things had us on edge.
We were terribly lacking in arms and firepower the day of the battle. We didn’t even have ammunition for our fighter pilots. And the biggest machine gun of rapid fire we had was a .50 caliber. I was horribly depressed when I found out how ill prepared we were in not only the size of what we had to do to defend ourselves, but also in the ability of the equipment we had. For instance, Japanese airplanes could fly inside of anything we had. And when we had dogfights we didn’t compete very well. I also couldn’t believe that they sunk the Lexington and the Saratoga. Anyway, those were frightening times.
Well I guess [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt, particularly [Winston] Churchill, wanted Pearl Harbor to happen to take the heat off [of Great Britain], and also to allow us to get into the war. There was no way we were going to strike out on our own against either Germany or Japan. And I think we forced the Japanese to attack us by taking away their supplies of oil and other things. We pushed them to do what they did. I think there’s plenty of evidence that this was the case and that what I am saying now is something that I learned long after. I certainly believe the allegations made in the book Day of Deceit by Robert B. Stinnett were true enough to cause the Japanese to start a war with us.
When it was reported to Roosevelt that there were only 2,300 people lost at Pearl Harbor, he said [something to the effect of]: ‘That’s a small amount for what we accomplished.’ And being one of those that was being shot at, I didn’t think that ‘small amount’ was the right thing for people to be thinking about.
The whole thing as I’ve learned over the years was that we were ill prepared because we were isolationist. And I guess I was particularly mad that Churchill had such a hold on Roosevelt that he almost forced us into the war. Now maybe it was best that we did go…I don’t know. Certainly somebody had to control Hitler. I don’t know if it was the right thing for us to join the war, but of course we had to [join] after the Japanese attacked.
The navy gave me my whole education. Now, beyond that, what did it help to do to make me a man? It taught me some things not to do where I witnessed weak officers who were scared out of their wits. I guess it taught me how to stand on my own. You can delegate authority and you should. But I think I learned that when I’ve got a job, and I’m a manager of something, I quickly align myself with the people who[m] I know can do their part better than I do. The captain of the ship, of course, is responsible for everything. But he sure as hell wasn’t doing the radioman’s job.
I haven’t talked about the war often because, you know, I’m no hero. As a matter of fact, people that ask me about that and say, ‘Jeez, you were at Pearl Harbor? Oh man, that’s great!’ It wasn’t great. I didn’t ask to be at Pearl Harbor. I didn’t want to be on top of that goddamn king post. But that’s where I was put, so that’s why I never talked about it very much.
It was terrible. To think about all the guys who went through awful things. I think about Wake Island. I had been on the USS Tangier about a week and they had to send some people to Wake Island; just standard personnel. And one was a radioman. And I was one of six radiomen that was put on the Tangier. We were the youngest. We just got there. I could have been one of those that had to go to Wake. And even though it was a scary thing to be at Pearl Harbor, I was on the other side of Ford Island. On the battleship side, there people screaming and burning in oil. I guess I felt I was very lucky on my side."
That Rusty subscribed to a theory put forth by Robert Stinnett that had drawn significant criticism from professional historians was not so much an issue for me. A member of America's corporate elite and lifelong Republican who enjoyed meeting Ronald Reagan in person, it is not at all surprising that he would have been receptive to a historical interpretation that portrayed FDR in a less-than-flattering light. That Rusty got a few facts wrong--the Lexington and Saratoga did not, in fact, sink at Pearl Harbor--is even less important in my mind. Rusty was 80 years old at the time of this interview and he was not trained as a professional historian. In addition, getting every factual detail correct misses the point of oral history. The value of interviews like Rusty's--and indeed the reason I've decided to blog about it amidst a busy schedule--lies in their ability to convey real-life experiences laden with authentic emotions.
As I said before, I conducted this interview as part of an assignment for an English class. Current students reading this post might be surprised to hear that their professor, a scholarly historian with a record of archival research, conference presentations, and academic publications, received a "B+" on the write-up that attended this interview, and a "B+" as an overall grade in the class. I could say, in my defense, that I had multiple priorities in college, beyond just academics, including an active social life and membership in two rock bands. While this is technically true, there is no need for me to get defensive. Like most overachieving students, I probably reacted to the grade with disappointment, but looking back at my prose twelve years later, I can certainly understand that the grade was justified. In fact, I often shudder to look at my early work as an undergraduate. The point here is to say that not every student must earn a 4.0 GPA to be a successful academic. My students should internalize this example as a lesson in the value of learning as a lifelong endeavor. In an age in which inflated grades are matched only by inflated egos and inflated expectations, students should remember that only exceptional, outstanding work is truly deserving of the grade of "A." Only with the benefit of hindsight and years of working as a professor can I appreciate this aspect of grading.
One final point on white privilege...It is clear that Rusty benefited from the color of his skin. I've come to realize over the past few years how government policies--social security, the GI Bill, and the Federal Housing Administration--doled out benefits to whites while denying them to non-whites. Grandpa received his social security; the navy paid for his education; and by virtue of being white, he was never deliberately barred from living in certain neighborhoods. Many African Americans, however, who risked their lives fighting in WWII all the while serving in segregated units, did not receive social security and did not reap the benefits of subsidized housing and education that came courtesy of the GI Bill. This is important to underscore because it runs so contrary to the myth of the American Dream. We are taught from day one in America that anyone can be president; that whether we succeed or not depends on our choices and our own individual free will. But as Ta-Nehisi Coates and countless other scholars remind us, it is difficult to blame individual choice exclusively when generations of accumulated inequality--carried out by larger structural forces, the state, and concerted policymaking--have stacked the deck in favor of some segments of the population to the detriment of others. I won't deny that individual choice is important; I just want people to consider how we all interact with society, institutions, politics, and larger factors that are way beyond the control of any person.