The anniversary of Pearl Harbor is coming up, Dec. 7, 1941, and I think about an uncle who was there at the U.S. Naval base at Honolulu when the Imperial Japanese Navy struck it and other sites, raining fire down on ships, planes, and men. Bill Adams was a pilot then, had been a high school dropout but had been sent to pilot training because his officers saw intellect, calm — all those special abilities pilots must have.
As a survivor of that attack, Adams had his airline ticket to join the other survivors and those special invitees to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that day on Dec. 7, 1991.
In a famous speech President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared the attack on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, as a date that “will live in infamy” and asserted that as a country we would “make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.”
My mother’s brother, my Uncle Bill, never talked about his 20 years of military service, about those bombing raids over Europe piloting B-17s or about the years flying in the Korean War either and his 20 years in civil service at Robins Air Force Base following 20 years in the U.S. Air Force. I had to learn the stuff of history regarding Pearl Harbor from my college text books, about the low chances those aboard the B-17s had of returning to the English airfields from which they departed. And I had to visit the airfield in Urbana, Ohio, to get my first introduction to the real B-17 that was being restored there.
After Dec. 7, 1941, we came together as a country. My grandmother rolled bandages; families planted victory gardens; basic food items and clothing — particularly shoes — were rationed; women went to work in factories and became WASPS, learning to fly planes for essential services in the U.S., and recruiting stations were open 24/7 to accommodate the young men who wanted to serve to protect democracy.
Now we are engaged in another great conflict, and the world is waiting to see if a nation so divided can long endure.
Uncle Bill didn’t get to use his plane ticket to Honolulu because he died May 2, 1991. As an adult, I never got to talk to him about those bombing raids in Europe and Korea. I guess those conversations were reserved for the men at the VFW in Cumberland, Ky., with whom he drank beer when he came from Warner Robins, Ga., three or four times each year to visit his mother, Viva Moore Adams.
My glimpse of that 50th reunion came when I read John McCain’s last memoir, The Restless Wave. McCain was there and he writes, “That day, we watched two thousand Pearl Harbor survivors march to honor their fallen. Most appeared to be in their seventies. Neither the informality of their attire nor the falling rain nor the cheers of the crowd along the parade route detracted from their dignified comportment.”
I do have, however, my uncle’s military records from the archives in St. Louis where every toothache he had, the places he was trained, the hours he flew, and his performance reviews are documented. How would be feel about knowing that I’ve read all that? Would he believe I had invaded his privacy?
I’m waiting, as is the world, to see if we as a nation can manage our differences and love, or at least respect, our neighbors regardless of their religion, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, or political beliefs. I’m hopeful.
And on May, 15, 2021, our family will gather in the little town in southeastern Kentucky, Cumberland, where the Kentucky Department of Transportation will install the signage on a new bridge there: The Major William “Ellis” Adams Memorial Bridge. I think Uncle Bill would be proud. As his niece, I am.