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Dec. 7, 1941, recollections of a 7-year-old Bluffton youth

My life changed.......just as it changed

dramatically for every American.

The late Charles Hilty wrote the following column of his recollections of Dec. 7, 1941, as a 7-year-old Bluffton youngster. This column was originally written in 2011, 70 years to the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He died May 30, 2020.

By Charles Hilty December 7, 2011 - Seventy years ago this afternoon my life changed.......just as it changed dramatically for every American.

Every Pearl Harbor Day I recall where I was and how I heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. I can remember places and faces and even the things that were said.

And as I get older, I learn new things about the questions that this 7-year-old boy was asking his parents in the kitchen of that little white wooden cottage on Spring Street, one block behind the old Victorian grade school where I was getting my education. My education in the life of the larger world began that afternoon when our family first heard the news about the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

We'd had a Sunday lunch after church there at the little home of my recently-married cousin, Margie Neeper, and her young husband, Vyrl.

My cousin Kenny Powell was there, as was his mother, my Aunt Minnie-my mom's older sister, who was Margie's mother.

I don't think that Uncle Lancie, Aunt Minnie's husband, was there – he rarely was.

Perhaps Aunt Lonie and Uncle Waldo were there. They only lived two blocks away and Uncle Waldo would never pass up a meal at someone else's expense.

It was mid-afternoon.......about 2:45 p.m........a gray, chilly, perhaps slightly rainy December day. The few lights in the house were on.

Because it was 1941, the men were talking in the living room......Dad, cousin Vyrl, cousin Kenny, Uncle Waldo and myself. (Kenny was 13, I was 7, so perhaps we didn't qualify as men.)

The women, naturally, were in the kitchen cleaning up and washing dishes, and listening to the radio. Their quiet chatter suddenly grew noisier and my mother burst into the living, almost shouting in panic "Charlie, you've got to come to hear this!! What does it mean??"

Because my mom was normally a quiet person-and because I'd never before heard her call my father by his first name, I sensed that something important was happening.

We "men" (and boys) rushed into the little kitchen, where the tiny radio was repeating the story that Japanese planes had made a surprise attack and had sunk American battleships at a place called Pearl Harbor – a new name to me – in the Hawaiian Islands, which I had heard about. My mom, my aunts and my cousin looked stricken.

My mom was biting her lip. Aunt Minnie was wringing the dish towel with great agitation.

I remember my father's quick angry outburst about the "Japs," followed at once by a return to the calmness that I knew was his natural way. Uncle Waldo was puzzled. Vyrl, cousin Margie's husband, was closely attentive and said, "This means war!!"

I'd already seen enough Army and Navy toys during those early years of a war that was being fought in Europe without the United States that I had some glamorous ideas about soldiers and sailors and bravery and American superiority.

"Oh, Vyrl, will you have to go????" cried my cousin Margie, to her husband, who, as I soon came to understand, already was a lieutenant in the active Army Reserve. "We'd better get ready," he replied. (He soon was called to active duty and stayed there for nearly four years.)

I knew that my Dad had been in the Army in World War. I He was part of the 37th Division, the Ohio National Guard, that had fought on the Mexican border in 1916 (when he was just 19) and then soon reactivated in 1917 to be sent to France.

I'd been allowed to wear the old, visored helmet and inspect the gas mask that he'd brought home as souvenirs of his four months of active trench warfare in eastern France and southern Belgium as part of the first large wave of American troops sent to battle in Europe.

He'd been in combat in the muddy trenches along the French-Belgian border, beginning each day with the knowledge that he'd either be part of the next American assault or facing a German attack supported by artillery.

Armistice Day 1917 – the end of the fighting in World War I – was the biggest day in the life of Corporal Charles D. Hilty, age 21. To the end of his life 39 years later November 11, Armistice Day, was always the day that made him the most thoughtful and the most introspective.

He talked little about his combat experience, but he remembered much.

That first Pearl Harbor Day I saw at once a sparkling, heroic future for my dad. Perhaps he, by himself, could re-enter the Army and win this war for America (not an unreasonable thought for a boy 7 years and one month old, who believed that his Dad was always right and could do anything).

"Oh, Dad, will you get to go?" I cried out, enthusiastically and hopefully, excited that this new "privilege" might come to him.

I don't recall his exact words of rebuke, but I recall clearly that he felt that no one should ever be excited about war and that going to battle was a terrible thing.

A 7-year-old couldn't know then that a 44-year-old man, married and a father, and already a veteran of two combat experiences in two foreign countries would be about as far down on the eligible list as any healthy middle-aged American could be.

My memories of Pearl Harbor Day, as it was first announced in a cottage on Spring Street in Bluffton, have prevailed for 70 years.

But it was only when I was in my late 30s or early 40s and had become a serious student of military history that I truly understood why my enthusiasm for my Dad going back to Army life was completely misplaced. "Going to war" is no privilege.

That's my memory of 70 years ago today, in a little kitchen on Spring Street, in Bluffton.



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