My father and Pearl Harbor have been inexorably linked through the irony of history, and the cruelty of coincidence.
When America was attacked by Japan early on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Flight Lt. Christos George Halkias was a 21-year old fighter pilot making his way to North Africa by land after escaping a German prisoner of war camp in his native Greece.
He made it, and continued to fight the Axis as a member of the 336th Royal Hellenic Fighter Squadron, attached to the British Royal Air Force.
Fifty-five years later, to the day, Dad took his last breath on this earth following a long and drawn out battle with Waldenstrom’s Syndrome, a rare non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
In between those two fateful seventh days of December, Dad was critically wounded during the Greek Civil War (1945-49), dispatched to the US for medical treatment and diplomatic posting, and ended up staying two decades.
In that time, he met my mother Catherine, the Brooklyn-born daughter of Greek immigrants, and started a family with two daughters and a son. I was the youngest of those three children.
When growing up, I was schooled on my father’s past life in increments, as well as on the history of my birth nation, the US. And so, when I was 10, Dad saw an educational opportunity and one afternoon had me skip school … to go to the movies.
Off we went 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 bus ride, seemingly on a journey from Pearl Harbor itself, when I still viewed war as something cool and shazam, like the movie’s visuals.
Years later, while in uniform, I discovered the opposite truth, and my father seemed prescient.
Ironically, as mentioned above, Dad died 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 today, on the 20th anniversary of my father’s untimely passing, and the 75rd tribute to our 3,566 dead and wounded, I’m left with a bus ride, and Dad’s efforts at reconciling a monumental American event with my potential place in the world.
A generation removed from being pulled bloodied and unconscious from his burning Spitfire, and a world away from Pearl Harbor, a former Greek fighter pilot tried to teach his American son why Dec. 7, 1941, and other days like it, still matter.
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 even today, the cruelty of that afternoon at the theater haunts me.
During the movie, perhaps unexpectedly, Dad found himself 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 on the big screen 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 journey 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.
On every Pearl Harbor Day since my father’s death, the irony of history and the cruelty of coincidence collide. Feeling his arm around my boyish shoulders, 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.
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist.
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