The Way We Were

Posted on July 10, 2021


The Way We Were

A few weeks ago I turned to the war channel, channel 112 or whatever we call it today, and watched the build up to Pearl Harbor, especially focusing on the Japanese ambitious empire-building over Asia, and, among other atrocities, the rape of Nanking, China in 1937. I had forgotten how brutal and ugly the Japanese conquest and occupation of Nanking turned into.

Then, a few days later I was watching my personal trainer Ashley (she also trains hundreds of others on my videos attached to my riding machine) as she rode through some areas of Japan last fall urging us yokels pumping away on our bikes at home to go faster and faster, pump harder! She’s really an attractive, sweet lady, enthusiastic to a fault, a true athlete, the mother of 19 year old twins, and I’m sure has her problems, but not on video. Go! Go! Get those RPMs up!!!

Anyhow, Ashely and I rode through a part of Japan, not necessarily bucolic, but quiet, small homes, nice cars zipping along on the wrong side of the highway, a gentle scene in a gentle land.

A “gentle land?” did I write? This was the Japan that set the world on fire and pitched the whole Pacific into the maelstrom of war in the 1930s and then dragged us in with the surprise air raid on Pearl Harbor, 1941. It left us stunned when the news started filtering into the U. S. on that Sunday afternoon. No cell phones then gals and guys. No videos. No breaking, or breathtaking, news that occupy the news channels 24 hours a day today. But we did have radios and the reality sank in rapidly as Roosevelt and the rest of the nation heard the broadcasts on NBC or CBS radio. Even with antique radio recievers and staticky, scratchy sound, it was clear what had happened.

The next day President Franklin Roosevelt and the Congress declared war on Japan, and soon thereafter on the rest of the axis nations, Germany and Italy, for good measure since Japan, Germany, and Italy were allied in their ambitions to conquer much of the world. We were at war.

1942 was a tough year for Americans. We had been surprised by the Japanese attack on the U. S. fleet in Pearl Harbor but not particularly by the aggressive actions of the Japanese advancing down into Southeast Asia and the islands of the far Pacific in search of oil and other raw materials not found on the Japanese homeland. President Roosevelt already had the nation preparing for war, but few thought the Japanese would be so bold as to attack our Pacific fleet stationed in Pearl Harbor.

Next year, we struck back with a surprise air raid in April 1942 on Tokyo and surrounding areas led by Jimmy Doolittle, piloting one of the sixteen B-25s launched from the new carrier, the USS Hornet, steaming quietly with her escorts into the far Pacific. It truly surprised the Japanese, astounded them really, since they thought they were unreachable and invulnerable in their island homeland just off of China and Korea.

Source of image below:

B-25B. Doolittle’s Raiders, Take Off from USS Hornet to Attack Japan, 18 April, 1942

The Americans had more surprises in store for them over the next three years. The war ended in a catastrophic maelstrom for Japan when B-29 bombers dropped the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killing tens of thousands near instantly and forcing the Japanese to surrender.

Today Japan is a strong ally in the Pacific world, quiet politically, strong economically, and the images of Nanking in 1937 compared to my trainer Ashley urging us on to peddle faster through bucolic countrysides is astonishing.

The same thing happened to us between 1861 and 1865. The Confederate will to fight on and prolong the Civil War was broken by the Union armies, especially those led by General William Tecumseh Sherman who burned Atlanta and then marched to the sea, scorching the countryside with fire and sword. In the end, General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomatax in 1865, and the war, for the most part, ended, like it did for the Japanese in 1945.

A period of Reconstruction ensued as the North outlawed slavery and imposed its will on the conquered States. There followed a century of conflict to free truly the new freedmen and give them access to all the rights of all citizens, like the right to vote, to have equal access to education, etc. The next hundred years marked the long period of segregation and Jim Crow laws which formally ended in the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement.

Today we are as far away from the end of the Civil War, triumphant for the North, catastrophic for the South, as Japan today is from the Japan of 1937. We are different and so are the Japanese.

“The Way We Were” BTW is a movie that appeared in 1973 starring Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford. It is nostalgic and sad and the theme song will stay with your forever, at least for those of us in that generation.

We are not today what we were in 1865 or 1942 or 1960 but history is not just a bunch of names and dates. It is our people, flesh and blood, faith and hopes, thoughts and joys, defeats and triumphs. By comparing us then to now determines where we are going into the future, how to live with the memories of our greatest and most desperate and sometimes ugliest moments, and make our faith and commitment to both liberty and justice a reality.

Published as Misty watercolor memories of the way we were” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday June 20, 2021.

Posted in: History