I’ve always referred to 9/11 as “my generation’s Pearl Harbor.”
America under attack. Roughly 2,500 casualties in just a few hours. Shock, horror, disbelief and sorrow. A nation thrust into war. The analogy is tight.
Or so I thought.
I found myself again typing these words in a Facebook post this past September, as we marked the 15th anniversary of 9/11:
“Hard to believe that an event, which is so permanently etched in my mind, is now being taught to kids in history class. To my boys, 9/11 is what Pearl Harbor was to me: an event comprised of facts and occurrences, but devoid of emotion … “
As I reflected on my post, I did some quick math and realized that the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor was fast approaching. A bit more number-crunching and I realized that anyone old enough to experience that event as a young veteran would now be at least 93 years old. Here I am, in the business of legacy preservation, and my window was quickly closing to speak with a Pearl Harbor survivor.
Thus began my quest to speak with a survivor and to find some sort of connection with the events that unfolded 75 years ago.
I started where any modern day quest begins: on social media. I posted a request on Facebook to see what leads I might uncover. Over the next two weeks, I followed a string of contacts, including the curator of this group, the author of this book, and the regional director of this organization. In general, everyone I spoke to agreed that I had missed my window. They said that the very small group of remaining survivors in this region were no longer in a position to be interviewed.
Soon, however, I was connected with Cockeysville resident Brien Haigley. As I mentioned in my Veterans Day blog, Brien’s father was an Army doctor, and his family lived in the Schofield Barracks near Wheeler Airfield, just to the north of Pearl Harbor. Though he was just 5 years old, Brien vividly recalls the roar of the Japanese planes as they flew over his house on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
In October, I met with Brien for a 90-minute conversation, which he was kind enough to let me capture via audio recording. We talked about his family’s life prior to Pearl Harbor, their time in Hawaii, the events surrounding and immediately after the attacks, his voyage home, and how Pearl Harbor and World War II had a devastating impact on his family. If you’re interested, I invite you to follow this link, to hear an edited, 5-minute version of Brien’s account (please excuse the pregnant pause that occurs roughly 20 seconds in).
This was an emotional conversation to be certain. It brought Pearl Harbor to life for me in a visceral manner. That said, there was little about Brien’s account that I could personally relate to. I remained disconnected from this moment in history.
That all changed earlier this month (on Pearl Harbor Day, in fact), when I emailed some people about my conversation with Brien. My father’s sister responded to my email and casually asked if I knew “my own family’s connection to Pearl Harbor?”
Um … NO.
As my Aunt Janis then told me: “Your grandparents were married on November 30, 1941.”
Of course! I never connected the dots. They were married one week before Pearl Harbor. She continued in the email:
“As they were driving home from their honeymoon in Atlantic City and NYC, they heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the radio. It was quite prophetic. Grandpa enlisted right way, trained at Pensacola, FL and was shipped out to the CBI (China Burma India) theatre. However, it was not before grandma got pregnant and your father was born 11 months after their wedding. Grandpa did not come home until after the war in 1945, and your dad was three years old. It was quite a reunion from what I heard as he came home in uniform and greeted his family after being away for such a long time.”
I knew that my father lived with his mother and grandparents for the first three years of his life. But I never realized how Pearl Harbor – in a single instant – changed my family’s life. Just as it did for so many other people in America and around the world.
And then, it all made sense. For the first time, I understood what it would feel like living here in Baltimore to have one’s life altered by the events that took place at a naval outpost in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Yes, there are plenty of similarities between Pearl Harbor and 9/11. But barring those individuals and families who were directly impacted by either event, the effects of Pearl Harbor were further reaching and more disruptive to the lives of every day citizens; to families right here in Baltimore.
Photo of Max Polt, 1945 (courtesy of Audrey Polt)
Rich Polt helps families celebrate, preserve, and share their legacies. After a 25-year public relations career, Rich launched Acknowledge Media (http://www.acknowledgemedia.com), which produces documentary-style life story films, built upon recorded conversations with loved ones.
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