Gail Hodson Shirk Blog
’A Day That Will Live In Infamy’
My dad never spoke of his service to our country. In her gravest tone of voice, my mother taught us at an early age to never, ever ask him about the Navy, or World War II, or Pearl Harbor. And so we did not. The only clue I had growing up was when my dad heard the song Maryland, My Maryland, which I seem to recall would occasionally be played at half time during some college football game, he would get tears in his eyes, and leave the room until he had composed himself. I did not know then what caused the strange reaction in him to half time music at a football game; I would make the connection much later in my life.
My dad, a nineteen year old student at Modesto Junior College in Modesto, California, an honor student, a rising star in track and field who had set records in pole vault, enlisted in the Navy in January, 1941. The brief story I heard as a child was he and his closest friend, a boy named Juddie, wanted to serve their country, so they dropped out of college, and went together to Fresno, California and enlisted.
His first year in the Navy was cataclysmic. He enlisted in January, completed initial training, and boarded the USS Maryland in San Diego, California in April. Eight months later, on December 7, 1941, my dad’s ship was on Battleship Row at the United States Naval Base, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The Maryland was moored inboard of the USS Oklahoma when, at 7:48 AM on a peaceful Sunday morning, the Imperial Japanese Navy conducted a surprise air attack; over 350 planes assaulting the unsuspecting US Pacific Fleet. In the first wave, the Oklahoma was hit, turned turtle and sank, which accounted for the lighter damage to my dad’s ship, the Maryland.
Today, few people remain who remember, and seemingly fewer have taken the opportunity to learn in depth, and grasp the magnitude of that morning’s events. Three hundred fifty-three Japanese fighters, bombers and torpedo planes attacked the base, including Navy air bases at Ford Island and Kaneohe Bay, the Marine airfield at Ewa and the Army Air Corps fields at Bellows, Wheeler and Hickam, in two waves, launched from six aircraft carriers. All eight US Navy battleships were damaged, four of which were sunk. They also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship, and one minelayer. One hundred eighty-eight US aircraft also were destroyed. Two thousand four hundred two Americans were killed, and one thousand two hundred eighty-two were wounded. All in a mere ninety minutes time.
For more perspective, battleship damage and loss incurred in those ninety minutes:
Arizona, hit by an armor-piercing bomb, exploded, 1,177 dead
Oklahoma, hit by five torpedoes, capsized, 429 dead
West Virginia, hit by two bombs, seven torpedoes, sunk, 106 dead
California, hit by two bombs, two torpedoes, sunk, 100 dead
Nevada, hit by six bombs, one torpedo, beached, 60 dead
Tennessee, hit by two bombs, 5 dead
Maryland, hit by two bombs, 4 dead
Pennsylvania, in drydock, hit by one bomb, 9 dead
Is it a wonder my dad did not wish to discuss Pearl Harbor? Not really. Even if he had been inclined to talk about it, how could he adequately have described the carnage of that December morning in paradise? I do not know what role he played that day. I have pictures of the Maryland during and after the attack, and I know I am looking at him in the crowd of sailors on deck, or possibly trying fervently to save comrades on the other ships; I just do not know which one of the men he is.
I do know this; after he had died, a Pearl Harbor Commemorative Medal was issued, and if the veteran was no longer alive, it could be issued to the next of kin. I was that person, so I ordered the medal, and waited with much anticipation for its arrival. Within a few weeks it was delivered. And more. Completely unexpected, and to my utter shock, another envelope arrived along with the Pearl Harbor medal. In it were several medals and ribbons that were due my dad, and according to the accompanying letter, he never obtained, took, or received them. I have no idea how he missed getting them, but so many years later, I had in my hands profoundly stirring recognition of his service. It was staggering to hold his medals, and realize that, in the serving his country, my dad had done some amazingly brave things.
The number of Pearl Harbor survivors is rapidly dwindling, leaving us to remember their sacrifices and losses. Even so, we also realize if the attack on Pearl Harbor, and subsequent entrance into World War II, did not take their lives, it took their youth. My dad never complained, and with the exception of the occasional private tear, he never let on what he carried in his heart until the day he died. I love that he loved his country, and once more, I want to say, “Thank you Dad, and I promise I will never forget.”