For as long as I can remember, a close friend of my father’s used to call me every December 7th and remind me it was Pearl Harbor Day. He had been a navy lieutenant stationed there when the Japanese attacked in 1941.
Without any introduction or question as to whether or not I was busy, he would just start in with, “Young man, remember.” He never phrased it as a question. Then depending upon the time of day he had called, or his mood in general, he would either ask me to put aside a few moments to remember “all our boys,” or go into more detail of that infamous day and how naïve we had been as a country to let that happen.
“Goddamnit! We got lazy and took our freedom for granted,” was a common thread of his. Then he would recount that morning with a riveting intensity and clarity that suggested the attack had happened only days before.
Simmering with memories still raw after 40 years, he described being jolted awake after his pre- dawn patrol by what he thought was a US Air Force drill. “I stepped out on the deck in my skivvies and thought to myself, ‘what are those dumb bastards up to at this hour of the morning.’ Then everything went to hell.”
He wasn’t one for sharing his heroics, and he limited the details of the assault to quick references of fighting back with anything that would shoot, doing his best to stay alive, and helping others do the same. It wasn’t so much the words he chose as it was his tone and pauses that told the story. He condensed helping the wounded, “cleaning up” after the attack, or our troops accidentally shooting down one of our own planes that evening, to the nearly whispered detail of, “you couldn’t imagine.”
2400 US personnel were slaughtered, more than 1100 wounded, and we had been ambushed into a world war that would kill millions. My friend served in almost every major naval battle in the Pacific. He earned the Silver Star for heroism, a detail I only learned by reading his obituary. In the course of the war, he survived having 3 ships sink under him. I once told him to remind me not to go offshore sailing with him.
“Hey smart ass,” he shot back, “you just remember.”
Lieutenant Commander John William Sugg passed away December 9, 2000 at age 84. I still see his finger pointing at me from across the table, warning me not to forget the fragility of our way of life and the horrific toll a lack of integrity and vigilance can inflict.
I miss his calls and our conversations, but I remember.