Editor’s note: Bill Burgin made this presentation at the Dec. 7 meeting of the North Little Rock Kiwanis Club. It has been lightly edited and reprinted here.
Yes, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt named it in his speech to a joint session of congress with his recommendation for a declaration of war with Japan, Dec. 7 was a “day which will live in infamy.” It was a day that changed the world!
Most of you have heard the story of my brother’s survival of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It was published in a feature article last year in the North Little Rock Times. He joined the navy in 1940 for 6 years. He was first assigned to the USS Oklahoma and, after a mission or two in the Pacific was docked in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Details on the following summary were in the Times article:
He was taking a shower when bombs and torpedoes hit and he ran topside to man his battle station.
The Oklahoma turned over on its side and he jumped off.
He swam through and under 3 inches of burning oil to USS Maryland.
Over 400 men were lost in his ship.
We didn’t hear from him for 6 weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack.
Finally a package mailed December 16 came and we knew he had survived the Japanese attack.
He was assigned to the USS Blue, then USS Raleigh, then USS Gambier Bay, all of which were destroyed or heavily damaged.
He was in Naval combat for four years including several major Naval battles of the South Pacific and the North Pacific. His hair turned grey at age 25.
We have all heard the speech dozens of times in which Roosevelt said, “YESTERDAY, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”
(He went on to advise that the Japanese Government had also undertaken a surprise attack on Malaya, The Philippines, Guam, Wake Island, and Midway Island. He said American ships have been torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Hawaii.)
“With confidence in our armed forces and with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph, so help us God.
I ask that the Congress declare, that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese Empire.”
Shortly afterward, a declaration of war was also declared with Germany and Italy.
The rest is history.
Indeed the world was changed forever.
Now on a personal note, perhaps you would like to hear how the war affected our own Burgin family and the old community of Cato located on the line of Faulkner and Pulaski Counties, just north of what is now Sherwood. I had just turned age 11 when the war began in 1941. Hardly any man under 35 was not drafted or volunteered to serve. Several from our community never came back or did so with injuries or “shell shock” as we called it then. PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] now. Our next door neighbors, the Farris family, lost one son who was a belly-gunner on a bomber that was shot down on a mission over the Balkans. They had another son who was shot up badly by a machine gun in France and was crippled for life. And there were more tragedies close to home. I had another brother who was on a troop ship headed for the south Pacific where he was to be in the invasion of Japan. Thank goodness the war ended before he got there.
Our farm property backed up to the 47,000 acres in which the government expanded Camp Robinson by forcing hundreds of families to vacate their homes and farms in 1940. They were paid a psaltery sum and given a very short time to move. Cato was left in an area surrounded on two sides by the military reservation. The old town of Cato was marked off in lots and blocks before Conway and it was a trading center for miles around. It had stores, a post office, blacksmiths, a school, and a strong historical Methodist church. When the families “surrounding” the place were moved out, Cato greatly declined. Since the main road for the army to reach the north part of the Camp Robinson Reservation went through the town, when 35,000 soldiers started training at Camp Robinson, military traffic and troops marching on 30 mile hikes through the community became commonplace. Their combat training operations often involved “capturing the town” while on bivouac. It seemed they were constantly firing 155 mm artillery shells that landed just over the hill from our place and others. One went off course and landed in my cousin’s back yard.
Gas was rationed as was many food items, shoes, and other items needed by the armed forces. In school, we bought war savings stamps for 10 or 25 cents and tried to accumulate enough to cash them in for a savings bond. We collected aluminum and scrap metals for the war effort. Many local women and men who did not go to the army or navy worked at the ordinance plant in Jacksonville. That made a big difference in their income as compared to that of the depression years.
As a young teenage boy, it was an exciting time. My friends and I made the most of it. We hung around the army guys on bivouac who would let us shoot their rifle (with blanks, of course), ride in their jeep, and bring them refreshments from the store. We would buy candy and gum for 5 cents each, go to their training camp and sell it to them for 10 or 20 cents. Some days the whole 35th Division would go on a 30-mile-hike with a full backpack. They were in columns marching in Arkansas August heat with 1 canteen of water. Sometimes they would have a 15-minute rest in front of our house and I would start taking them cold well water. I really got angry when an officer would come along and make them pour it out ! !
There were other exciting days for us. Once my friend Paul and I went fishing in the creek about a mile inside the reservation. We were not having much luck. Then Ronald came up on horseback with a filled flour sack on his back and said, “Hey, you guys want to really catch some fish?” Of course we did. In the sack he had about 6 live hand grenades. They were in cartons in which they came from the factory. He said he knew how to use them so he would pull the pin on the grenade and throw it in the water. We three would run and get behind a tree. I could hear the shrapnel falling through the leaves on the trees all around me where I was standing. When they exploded, fish would come to the top of the water and we would string them up. Well, we ran out of hand grenades. Ronald told me where the army dropped them and said there were more there. I eagerly agreed to take the horse and go back and get some more. I found them, put about 6 in the flour sack and started back to the creek on the horse, holding the reins in one hand and the sack thrown over my shoulder with the other hand. About halfway there, I dropped one of the reins. ! ! ! The horse was a pretty lively one and I couldn’t control him with one rein. He ran away ! ! ! Here I was, bouncing that sack on my back and couldn’t stop the horse! If I dropped them………..out of the question ! If I kept them bouncing on my back…………didn’t think that was a very good idea either ! So I just let the horse run till he got tired and stopped. I got off, shaking like a leaf, and walked, leading the horse, back to the creek. Yeah, we lived over it. We used up that batch also and strung up a lot of fish.
We went back to Ronald’s house to clean them. When his mother saw the big string of fish, she said, “My goodness, fishing was good today.” We said, “Yes Mam, it certainly was.” And neither of us said anything about our little adventure to anybody, ever.
Twenty years later, Ronald, his dad, and I were pallbearers in a funeral for an elderly Cato woman. We rode together in a limo to the cemetery. In the back seat, Ronald and I got to talking about that “adventure” and laughing. His dad in the front seat overheard us. He said, “You did what??
He turned to the limo driver and said, “Stop this car! I’m going to get out and get me a limb and whip the hell out of these guys, right now!”
Growing up among the army activities in Cato wasn’t all bad – and it was nice to survive!