Tuesday, December 07, 2021

'The Private Life Is Small'

As a newspaper reporter I interviewed five Navy survivors of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. My story about three of them, in Ohio, was published on the fortieth anniversary. I’m sorry to say I remember only one man’s surname: Stark. Two more I interviewed fifteen years later, in upstate New York. There I remember the name of one, Marion “Babe” LaMalfa. I see that his widow, whom I also spoke with, died this year at age one-hundred. 

More than 2,400 Americans were killed in the attack, some 2,000 of whom were Navy personnel, and another 1,178 were wounded. For the survivors I met, Pearl Harbor, even after half a century, was the central event around which they constructed their lives. For them, history was binary, before and after, two discrete worlds. Four of them spoke reluctantly, often in monosyllables. All needed time and much preliminary conversation before they could speak of the attack. LaMalfa was angry and seldom stopped talking. I sensed I was listening to an ongoing monologue. He still hated the Japanese. All five are most likely dead. Fewer than twenty American survivors of the attack are thought to be alive.


In The Second World Wars (Basic Books, 2017), Victor Davis Hanson describe the conflict as “a deliberate effort to kill civilians, mostly on the part of the Axis Powers,” and continues: “Most of the fatalities were not soldiers: perhaps 70-80 percent of the commonly cited sixty million who died were civilians.” He gives five causes: the Holocaust and “Japanese barbarity” in China; widespread use of air power; famines ensuing from military occupations; “vast migrations and transfers of populations,” especially in Prussia, Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and Manchuria; and, most clearly:


“[T]he idea prevalent in both totalitarian and democratic governments that the people of enemy nations were synonymous with their military and thus were fair game through collective punishments.”


Unlike the Soviet Union, where some twenty to twenty-seven million military personnel and civilians were killed, American civilians were spared the slaughter. As Davis puts it, “The US mainland was untouched by enemy bombers, and never reached by Axis ground troops.” American civilians helped where they could. On May 10, 1943, Yvor Winters, then forty-two years old, writes to Louise Bogan:


“I tried to get a commission in the army, but was turned down because I had a touch of TB over 21 years ago. I could probably go into the merchant marine as a crew member, but I can hardly take a job voluntarily that will pay me too little to support my family. Janet is not strong & the children are young. My friend Clayton Stafford is now a captain in the Signal Corps. Meanwhile I sit around & watch the kids go. About all I can do for civilization is try to counteract a little of the effect of Lewis Mumford & our School of Humanities, which is a god-awful mess.”


Winters was safely beyond draft age but nagged by a sense of patriotic obligation. After he was turned down by the Army, he became the Citizens’ Defense Corps zone warden for Los Altos, Calif. In “To a Military Rifle 1942” he writes:


“The times come round again;

The private life is small;

And individual men

Are counted not at all.

Now life is general,

And the bewildered Muse,

Thinking what she has done,

Confronts the daily news.


“Blunt emblem, you have won:

With carven stock unbroke,

With core of steel, with crash

Of mass, and fading smoke;

Your fire leaves little ash;

Your balance on the arm

Points whither you intend;

Your bolt is smooth with charm.

When other concepts end,

This concept, hard and pure,

Shapes every mind therefor.

The time is yours, be sure,

Old Hammerheel of War.


“I cannot write your praise

When young men go to die;

Nor yet regret the ways

That ended with this hour.

The hour has come. And I,

Who alter nothing, pray

That men, surviving you,

May learn to do and say

The difficult and true,

True shape of death and power.”


[The letter is taken from The Selected Letters of Yvor Winters (2000), edited by R.L. Barth and published by Swallow Press/Ohio University Press.]

1 comment:

Richard Zuelch said...

My maternal grandfather, William Vance (1898-1974) was a Pearl Harbor survivor. As of that day, he was 43 years old and had been in the Navy for 24 years (since 1917; he retired in 1947, a 30-year "lifer"). He told me only one story about that day: he was standing on deck of the Phoenix (anchored in the harbor, not at a dock), smoking a cigarette, trying to decide what he wanted to do with his Sunday off. Then, "those Japs," as he put it, basically decided what he would be doing with his Sundays for the next almost four years. He told me some stories about his Navy career (I was 22 the year he died), but that was all he would say about Pearl Harbor, as I recall.