I Remember the Day That Will Live in Infamy
On Sunday, December 7, 1941 I was a Sixteen year old senior in high school. We were practicing the Senior Class play in the gymnasium when word came over the radio by way of the speaker system, “Japan has just bombed Pearl Harbor!” Practice was immediately over for the day.
On the same day, in Perth Amboy, New Jersey Arturo Giovanni Batiste Vaticano was celebrating his Seventeenth Birthday. At a point in the not too distant future, John and I would become forever a part of each others lives.
The play went on; the Senior Prom came and went. Finally graduation day, May 24, 1942 arrived, I graduated and couldn’t wait to get into the war. Too bad, Tom, your eyesight is not up to induction standards. Oh well, join the Merchant Marine, take a round trip to Cold Bay, Alaska and get paid over $400 for the privilege. That was big money in 1942, especially for a kid from the Montana prairies.
Maybe a trip down to California would be the ticket to the military, Again, no luck but a job as a messenger for the U. S. Army Air Corps Materiel Command at Fourth and Pacific in Santa Monica, California. Saturdays and Sundays to play around on the beach at Venice with a high school friend Kenny Dahlquist and his high school squeeze, Edna (she preferred Jolene).
Jolene’s mother worked at the Douglas Aircraft Plant nearby and they lived in Venice at 224 Horizon Avenue. We still keep in touch. Kenny was waiting to get into the Air Corps as a pilot. He did and flew P-51s in the Pacific.
Every boy in my class wanted to serve in some capacity, of course the majority wanted to fly, most never did. They were grunts in the mud and slime of the South Pacific islands or the sand of Africa, the beaches and mountains of Sicily and mainland Italy and Europe. Some never came home, most did and were ideal citizens, God fearing and hopeful for something better than the Great Depression we had all survived.
I went home to Cut Bank just after I accidentally knocked 1st Lt Ronald W. Reagan, Yes that Ronald Reagan, to his knees when I charged through a door delivering mail. Ever gracious and friendly, he arose with a hand up from me, smiled and said simply, “Take it easy, kid, the war is gonna last a few more days.”
On my 18th birthday, January 20, 1943, I went down to the Draft Board, signed up. I asked Shirley Callison, the registrar if I could go right away. She told me she could put me on the next contingent going to Butte to take the physical on March 6th. Getting into the military is not so easy when one is severely myopic (near-sighted). In any event with the exception of Gerry (Bones) Goldrick, who had a really bad leg, all the rest passed. Me, I saw a large red “R” on my application. I asked what did that mean and was told, “You are rejected; you are too near sighted to serve in the military.”
I was totally frustrated and mildly dejected and told this soldier, “I may be near sighted but I can outshoot anybody in this building. Truth was, I could but there was no way that could be proved. At least, the noise drew the attention of an officer. He stepped over and asked, "What seems to be the problem?” The soldier explained to the officer and reiterated my remark about marksmanship. The officer looked over my application, looked at me and said, “Son, why don’t you go on home, go to college and let the rest of us fight this war?”
I was pretty well at the end of my patience, held my tongue and replied, “Sir, there has to be something I can do to help.” He looked me up and down, all 117 skinny pounds, glasses and all and asked, “Would you be willing to go into the Army with a Limited Service designation?” I asked what that meant and someone shouted out, “It means that you can see lightning, hear thunder and smell smoke.”
Without hesitation, I said, “I’ll take it.”
I signed on the dotted line and was sworn in with the rest of my buddies. That was on March 7, 1943 the start of a more than thirty year military career. I was ecstatic on the train ride home and found it hard to wait the few days before I left for Fort Douglas, Utah.
I won’t bore you with details but I have an aside pertinent to this story.
In the late Sixties when the United States became involved in the Vietnam conflict, there were so many cowards, like Cheech Marin who ran away to Canada to avoid the draft; only to be forgiven by President James Earl Carter in the most disgraceful act he performed on his first day in office. While other brave young Americans stepped up to the plate and performed exceptionally well, in spite of an anti war craze and then came home to the stupid remarks of the cowardly draft dodgers and the know-it-all pacifists. Baby killers they were not, they were the unwitting victims of an arrogant Secretary of Defense and a narcissistic and lying President, not unlike the one we have today.
Back to the ‘day of infamy’ and the men and women both military and civilian who without thinking of avoiding or quitting the fight, supported, at great sacrifice, all the demands placed upon them to beat the hell out of three brutal enemies.
The aforementioned John Vaticano joined the Army Air Corps. He too was nearsighted, and wanted to fly but was also unable to pass the physical. John was trained to handle cargo on airplanes supplying or ground forces. On March 7, 1944 John Vaticano and Tom Davis without ever meeting, boarded the USAT William A. Mann at Hampton Roads, Virginia bound for we knew not where.
After the war, I had the great good fortune to end up in Camp Kilmer, New Jersey enroute to a post-war assignment in Germany. Fate stepped in; I walked into PX #10 in Camp Kilmer on Monday Morning, April 15, 1946, got in the line to get a milk shake. A gorgeous dark curly-haired petite girl pointed to my CBI patch and said, “My brother was over there, maybe you know him.”
I, through a hangover haze, replied, “I doubt it, there were thousands of sevicement in the CBI.”
She said, “I’ll bring in a picture of him tomorrow.”
I ordered my milkshake, thought no more about it and went to the payroll department to get a partial pay. The next morning I went back to the same PX and spotted the same cute girl. I asked, “Did you bring the picture of your brother?”
She responded that she had not. I spent most of the day talking to her while she made and served milkshakes. I knew I wanted to see more of her. I learned her name was Connie and I asked her if she would like to go to a movie with me the following Saturday night. She agreed but said we would have to meet at the bus stop because her family was very strict and dating soldiers was not looked upon favorably. Connie said she would have to bring along a girl friend and could I bring a friend to chaperone.
Three of Connie’s brothers had been in the Army and held in low esteem soldiers who wanted to date their little sister. The brother whose photo Connie had forgotten was not yet home from CBI. The date went extremely well, I held her hand and that was plenty. For the next two months or so, I met Connie at the PX and accompanied her to Perth Amboy. At the turn around near the waterfront was also the terminus for the Staten Island Ferry that ran between Perth Amboy and Tottenville, S. I. It was on this ferry that Connie asked me one evening, “Are you ever going to kiss me?” To the resounding applause and sounds of approval from the other passengers, I held her close for the very first time and knew she was the one with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life.
That night, I went back to Camp Kilmer. In the barracks, I announced to one and all, “I am going to stay here and marry Connie.” My buddies, seemingly in unison, shouted, “Like hell you are, Sarge, you’re coming to Germany with us; we will all find good looking frauleins, lots of good German beer and have a blast. They were wrong and I was right. In the next two months, I took instructions to convert to Catholocism, Johnny finally got home and we found out that on March 7, 1944 we boarded the same troop transport that took us to Casablanca, Morocco and Camp Don Passage and on to the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations. I served as the Captain of an Army tugboat hauling military cargo along the huge river system of the Asian subcontinent. Johnny served as a "Kicker” on Air Corps Cargo planes with the Second Combat Cargo. Resupply Squadron flying out of Mytikyina, Burma and other dangerous places.
On July 21, 1946, with Johnny as my Best Man, Connie became my beloved wife.
You bet I remember December 7, 1941 and today is no different; it was a life changer for not only America but for the entire world. Today would have been Johnny’s 87th birthday while Connie and I celebrated 65 years and 4½ months of togetherness. No regrets. Though, I still have no tolerance for Draft Dodgers, cowards, and dumb presidents, I would do it all over again.