There are some dates you never forget. Bill McGee never forgot Sunday, December 7, 1941…
I was sixteen and had dropped out of high school to help support my mother and three siblings. I was living with the Reverend Hawley and his family at the Vancouver Barracks in Vancouver, Washington, just east of Portland, Oregon. Rev. Hawley was the pastor at the Malta Community Church in my hometown of Malta, Montana, when he was called up to serve as a Chaplain in the U.S. Army in Vancouver. He had gotten me a job at the Vancouver Barracks “PX” (Post Exchange).
On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, Joe Rizzo, John Ruud, and I were walking down Broadway in downtown Portland, checking out the movies. Out of the blue, some guy opened a shop door and shouted to anyone within earshot, “The radio says we’ve just been bombed by the Japanese…somewhere called Pearl Harbor!”
My buddies and I stopped dead in our tracks. Had we heard right? We asked the guy to repeat what he said. We forgot about the movies, and rushed back to John’s uncle’s house. For the rest of the day, we sat glued to the radio.
The newspapers had been running stories about the threat of a war with Japan, but America was trying its best to stay out of a conflict, be it in Europe or the Pacific.
In the days following December 7, Americans learned about the magnitude of the damage done to the U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, eight miles west of Honolulu on the island of Oahu. The U.S. naval force was then the mightiest naval force in the world. In this planned secret attack, some 400 Japanese warplanes took to the skies from the flight decks of six aircraft carriers, supported by 28 warships and 27 submarines. At 7:55 a.m., Hawaii time, and precisely on their schedule, Japanese planes suddenly appeared over the unsuspecting U.S. Naval Base. Their mission: to bomb the hell out of the naval base. When the Japanese pilots turned homeward one hour and 15 minutes later, they had sunk or severely damaged 8 battleships, 3 cruisers, 3 destroyers, 5 special-mission vessels. They had destroyed 177 Navy and Army aircraft. They had killed more than 2,400 Navy, Army, and Marine Corps, and civilian personnel, with 960 missing and more than 1,100 wounded.
On December 8, President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously declared December 7, 1941 as “a date which will live in infamy” and he declared war on Japan. On December 11, he declared war on Germany. The United States would now be fighting a war in two theaters—Europe and the Pacific.
Like other guys my age, I was chomping at the bit to get into the fight. The age requirement to enlist was recently changed from 21 to 18, but now that America was at war, I thought there might be an exception and I could join up at 16. I went to the Marines recruiting office in Vancouver, but they told me to come back when I turned 17 and with a consent form signed by one of my parents.
Impatiently, I waited out the next ten months. I quit my job at the “PX” and trained to be a welder at Kaiser’s new shipyard in Vancouver. At least I would be helping to build ships and doing something to contribute to the war effort.
On September 30, 1942, the day I turned 17, I was first in line at the Marines recruiting office, a signed consent form in hand.
(Postscript: Ironically, on June 16, 1943, I was a survivor of an enemy air attack off Guadalcanal. The aerial attack turned out to be the second largest since Pearl Harbor and lasted four hours. For my participation as a Gunner’s Mate in the U.S. Navy, I received the Bronze Star.)
(Excerpted from William L. McGee’s World War II memoir, Bluejacket Odyssey, 1942-1946: Guadalcanal to Bikini)