The World War II lessons learned and forgotten

As the anniversary of Pearl Harbor nears, I’ve thought about the WWII lessons we learned – or have forgotten.
As the anniversary of Pearl Harbor nears, I’ve thought about the WWII lessons we learned – or have forgotten. AP

My father-in-law was reading the December 7, 1941 edition of the Honolulu Times when he heard the explosions. The chief engineer of the USS Cummings, a Mahan-class destroyer moored at the navy yard at Pearl Harbor, he recounted the frantic attempts to jerry-rig a partially disassembled main generator so the ship could get underway.

Compared to some of the other ships that day, the Cummings was relatively unhurt, just three minor casualties, a dented bulkhead, and a hit to the galley pantry. Within a couple of hours of the attack, the ship headed into the channel to begin a patrol that kept the crew at sea for several months.

That’s when the damage to the pantry took a toll. In an odd twist of fate, the upper shelves where canned pears were stacked were intact, even as much of the rest of the food supplies were lost. Pears became a staple at every meal – raw, stewed, baked, made into soup. For the rest of his life, my father-in-law fastidiously picked canned pears out of his fruit cocktail and discarded them.

Like my father-in-law, my dad was a sailor in the US Navy, though he spent the war in the Atlantic in a hunter-killer destroyer pack looking for German U-boats. He often told funny stories on himself – like the first time they came under enemy fire and he asked his commanding officer to send him home, or his description of his missteps as a galley cook, or his miserable seasickness sailing out of the port of Miami.

Towards the end of his life he added a darker story about German sailors captured when their submarine was hit by depth charges. When he saw how ordinary – how young, how human, how like him – they were, my father was shocked.

“They tortured those boys,” he told me, teary-eyed.

As the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor approaches, I’ve thought a great deal about my father-in-law and my dad, both gone now, and what they would think of the lessons we learned – or have forgotten – about World War II, like the dangers of race hatred and demagoguery and how easy it is to be complicit in great evil.

Last week Trump surrogate Carl Higbie suggested that Japanese-American internment camps during WWII were a “precedent” for actions that could be taken against Muslim Americans. This week NPR interviewed Taylor Rose, a white nationalist who almost won a race for Republican legislator in Montana.

This is America now.

My junior class is a microcosm of the high school where I teach – a mix of races and ethnicities and abilities, the majority of them poor. When the anniversary of Pearl Harbor rolls around next Wednesday, we will be deep in our study of contemporary American short stories: Flannery O’Connor’s Southern tales, Bernard Malamud’s stories of Jewish immigrants, Maxine Hong Kingston’s accounts of growing up Chinese-American on the west coast, Richard Wright’s autobiography about desperate poverty in Memphis, Sherman Alexie’s description of life on an American Indian reservation, Julia Alvarez’s story about the divide between her Dominican family’s traditions and their life in New York City.

These stories are a countermeasure to the rising tide of racism and xenophobia, highlighting our country as a cultural tapestry, varied and rich, multicultural and diverse.

They celebrate the grand experiment my father-in-law and dad fought for, e pluribus unum, people woven into the new cloth of America, each thread bright and beautiful. Pluck out any one and the whole thing unravels.

Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: