restricted access The Night I Gave Away Italy
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The Night I Gave Away Italy

THE war started the early afternoon my father, my grandmother, and I got up from Sunday dinner at the Post Office Cafe in Cleveland, Mississippi, and walked to the cash register. The radio on the shelf behind the man who ran the cafe was on, and the news was just beginning: the Japanese had attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. I had never heard of Pearl Harbor, but I would hear quite a lot of it in the days ahead. I do recall our standing there at the door of the cafe as a very strange moment—in part because of what my grandmother said and the way she said it: “We are at war!”

Then we walked out of the cafe to our car parked on the street and drove home in stunned silence. Though I don’t remember it, I’m sure my father turned on the radio.

The next morning at school the students talked of nothing but the war, and Mr. Parks, our superintendent, sent word around to the classrooms for us to assemble in the auditorium to hear the president. President Roosevelt was addressing a joint session of Congress. Mr. Parks had brought a radio over from his home next door, and we heard the president declare that a state of war now existed between the United States and—I can recall his inflections—the Empire of Japan. “Yesterday, December 7, 1941,” he said, was “a day that will live in infamy.”

I was a senior in high school—three days away from my seventeenth birthday. I would be graduated in the spring of the coming year and would go away to college in the fall. But I couldn’t be sure of any of that this December day. There was talk among the boys of enlisting in the army or the navy, and in fact several of them did sign up in the weeks ahead. Men twenty-one to twenty-seven could be drafted, and the age of eligibility would soon be lowered to twenty.

With civilian rail travel given a low priority, the senior class’s trip by train to New Orleans—a school tradition—was now out of the question. We had raised money for the trip by picking cotton on the farms around the town, an experience new to many, but [End Page 597] not to all of us. We took the money and put it into war bonds. The boy who under ordinary circumstances would have been named “Most Popular” was voted “Number-One Soldier” instead. Our Class Prophecy predicted that the cheerleader Betty Jean Williams would become a hostess on a dive-bomber.

Meanwhile the Japanese extended their reach in the Pacific. Singapore fell as did Manila. General Douglas MacArthur, commander of United States forces in East Asia, slipped out of the Philippines on a pt boat and was flown to his new headquarters in Australia. The Germans had already occupied most of Europe. In North Africa, Rommel’s Afrika Korps raced across the desert into Egypt. 1942 would be a very bleak year.

The war in Europe had in fact begun two years before the attack on our fleet at Pearl Harbor—with Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September of 1939 followed by the British and French declarations of war against Germany. In 1940 England was hanging on for its life, and there was more and more talk that the United States would be brought into the war. In the fall of 1940 men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-six were required to register for the draft—the first peacetime draft in our history. We students got a day off on October 16th when the school was used as the local draft board’s place of registration. Two weeks later draft registration numbers were drawn in a Selective Service lottery held in Washington, D.C., with President Roosevelt’s looking on as the first numbers were called.

Toward the end of 1940, or perhaps early in 1941—at any rate, soon after the lottery—I was taken out of school by Mr. Parks one...


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