Veterans' tales recall Pearl Harbor 71 years later
Ivan Prall was working on his homework when he heard the radio report about a Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
“I didn’t rush off to enlist. I wasn’t old enough at the time to be drafted,” said Prall, 90, of Malta. “I bought a ’33 Plymouth for $90 that summer. That’s what I drove up to Rockford to enlist. I left it with my folks when I went off to war.”
Today is the 71st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the attack that paved the way for Prall’s drive to enlist in Rockford.
It’s the date President Franklin D. Roosevelt said “will live in infamy.” An hour after Roosevelt’s speech, Congress declared war on Japan. Three days later, Germany and Italy – Japan’s allies in World War II – declared war on the United States, which reciprocated the declarations that day.
Some say that Dec. 7, 1941, was the day that yanked a nation out of a depression and foisted greatness upon a generation of soldiers and Rosie the Riveters. Decades later, as the leaders of the free world discuss a “fiscal cliff” and a Palestinian state, one Northern Illinois University assistant professor sees fewer and fewer students recording the oral histories of World War II veterans.
Stanley Arnold, an NIU assistant professor who specializes in 20th century American history, compared the historical impact of the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the Sept. 11 attacks and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
“When you have a tragedy such as this, there’s a great sense of, on the one hand, shock, and then a kind of resolve, reconstruction, a rebuilding [in many ways],” Arnold said. “Out of this comes a greater sense of unity. The question is how long this unity lasts.”
Stories such as Miller’s and Prall’s are increasingly living in history books and recordings.
For years, Arnold has had students record oral histories of friends or family members of significant events that occurred before 1992. Over time, Arnold said he has received fewer recollections of the World War II era.
“Tens of thousands of veterans are dying every day, much less regular people who lived through that era,” Arnold said. “That’s why it’s so important to record those memories through oral histories or other documentation.”
The United States, which had been giving clandestine support to Great Britain, was fully mobilizing for war. According to a November 2012 fact sheet from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 16 million Americans served in the military from 1941 to 1945 either by enlistment or the draft. Prall enlisted.
Prall drove up to Rockford to enlist the summer after he had taken an elective photography class at the Northern Illinois State Teachers College – the academic predecessor to Northern Illinois University. He pursued his interests in photography, working as an aerial photographer for the Army in the Pacific Theater from 1942 to 1945.
Prall said he landed on 15 different islands during his time in the war, including Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima.
“It was supposed to be a three-day affair, and we landed on Feb. 19 and the last big battle was a night battle on March 26,” Prall said of the Battle of Iwo Jima. About 26,000 Americans were killed or wounded on Iwo Jima.
Prall’s grandson, Brian, 28, said the stories his grandfather tells have changed over time. They were “always amusing tales and episodes” when he was a kid, but became more action-packed and harrowing as he aged.
“He also showed us his pictures,” Brian Prall said. “Some of his pictures were pretty gruesome.”
Ivan Prall was wounded on Iwo Jima. He and another soldier were investigating one of the island’s many caves. The soldier was two steps in front of Prall when a gunshot rang out in the dark. A bullet penetrated the soldier’s torso and hit Prall in the knee. Prall pulled the soldier out of the cave.
Prall said he did not know what happened to the soldier, and while the bullet is still lodged in his knee, he has not had any problems with it. But looking back on it, Prall said he probably would not have gone into the cave.
“There’s quite a few things I would have done differently,” Prall said.
Another World War II veteran who lives in Malta feels the same way. Charles Miller, now 91, was working on the railroad line for Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad in Chicago when he heard Pearl Harbor was attacked. He was drafted in 1942, when he was 21.
Miller’s expertise with railroads had him working on rail lines in North Africa and Italy. He repaired steam locomotives that hauled equipment and soldiers to the front lines.
“I wasn’t in combat, but I was pretty close to it,” Miller said.
He was homesick; the living conditions were uncomfortable.
“I wouldn’t want to live through it again,” Miller said.