When I was 10, my father, a former World War II fighter pilot, took me to see the joint American-Japanese production of “Tora! Tora! Tora!” The 1970 film was a major spectacle, portraying the Pearl Harbor attack from both sides.
Its Academy Award-winning special effects left me mesmerized. Death, destruction, and history-changing events didn’t make the same impression.
Until the bus ride home. There, Dad broke everything down in simple terms: Nations have motives, just like people. When their actions lead to killing, expect other nations to have a reaction.
Often, such responses are difficult to comprehend, my father said. If they lead to war, they will be hard to carry out. And nothing is as simple as a movie. He was adamant about that.
A highlight from that 45-minute ride was Dad emphasizing the scene when Japan’s Imperial Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto reacted to the attack’s success in the wake of diplomatic intrigue, tactical surprise, and an isolationist American public: “We have awakened a sleeping giant and have instilled in him a terrible resolve.”
Yamamoto knew something of this, having previously served as naval attaché at the Japanese embassy in Washington, D.C. He appreciated the impact of a mobilized U.S. industrial base, and of our unified citizenry behind a war effort.
More importantly, Dad explained, Yamamoto grasped the patterns of the past: When Americans were backed against a wall, they often came out in waves of resolve that weren’t pretty, but almost always effective.
Even at that age, I found it unusual for a man who held a Greek passport and had flown Spitfires in the British Royal Air Force to take such interest in educating his adolescent son on Pearl Harbor.
But I was an American, and my father was a student of history. As such, he felt an obligation not only to make me aware of the New World’s legacy, but also to connect it to my future.
To him, Pearl Harbor was in a long line of mileposts, just past Bunker Hill, Fort Sumter, and the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine. Were he alive today, he would have added 9/11 to that avenue of fate.
In their own way, each of those actions led to reactions, as Dad noted, that altered our course as a nation, and a people – for better or worse.
Finally home, before we opened the front door, Dad patted me on the shoulder and said: “You may wear that uniform one day; these are things you need to know.”
When I reached adulthood we broached the subject on more scholarly levels, especially while I taught history. Yet no studies of mine ever matched the intensity of that boyhood ride, seemingly on the last bus from Pearl Harbor itself, when I still viewed war as something cool and shazam, like the movie’s visuals.
A generation later, while in uniform, I discovered the opposite truth, and my father seemed prescient.
Ironically, Dad died of leukemia on Pearl Harbor Day in 1996, the raid’s 55th anniversary. Unlike his combat flying, it was a battle he could fight but not control.
So this week, on the 73rd tribute to our 3,566 dead and wounded from that day, I’m left with a bus ride, my father’s untimely passing, and his efforts at reconciling a monumental event with my potential place in the world.
Dad lost a decade of his youth and much of his future well-being in that fighter cockpit. For a man left physically and emotionally scarred by World War II and the Greek Civil War, he did remarkably well against the sleeping giants that finally wore him down to nothing.
But during the movie, Dad was in a Spitfire again. He gripped the armrest to my left and sweat glazed his forehead, as if navigating an aerial dogfight. He was out of time and place, yet trying to defend his American allies from disaster.
Perhaps Hollywood’s depiction of history sparked my father’s memory of how much more horrible the real thing was. It must have led to the tutorial on our ride home.
And, as I was wrapping up this piece, an e-mail from my sister arrived with the simple title “Daddy,” ostensibly to remind me of the impending anniversary of his final, lost battle.
I didn’t need it. Every Pearl Harbor Day, I see passers-by from the bus window, a line of tail lights during rush hour, and can still hear the screech of dive bombers.