Guest Viewpoints

December 7, 1941… A Date to Be Remembered

December 12, 2020
By Peter Nicolelis

It was a mild beautiful sunny day in Astoria, New York. We all were up at the crack of dawn to prepare for our open house celebration of my father’s name day. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment which meant that we had to break down the two twin beds in order to put them out of sight so that we had room for all our friends and relatives. Only when it was all done was I allowed to go out to play. 

While I was playing on 35th Street, just east of Broadway, I heard an alarm from one of our neighbors that President FDR had broadcast over the radio, before a joint session of Congress, that “the Japs had just bombed Pearl Harbor.” 

As a young innocent child of 13, I did not realize the ramifications of this horrific bit of news. The next day, my family and I listened to the news and the speech that President Roosevelt made, when he said that this day will be remembered in infamy and went on to declare war on Japan for their dastardly sneak attack against America. 

From that moment, and up to the day of my graduation from Public School 6 grade school in June 1942, I realized the ramifications of this war and how it affected me personally. I was scheduled to enter high school in September and projected that I would be 18 years old if I completed my education in the scheduled four years. I would then be drafted to serve in the army and probably shipped to a combat zone. I had seen at a movie house a newsreel of soldiers fighting on a jungle infested island in the South Pacific and that terrified me.

I then gave it more thought. If I could complete all my credits and state regents requirements in three or three and a half years, I could then be admitted into a college that offered an accelerated engineering study program. By applying for this program, I would be of draft age of 18 and a good candidate for the army OCS (Officer’s Candidate School) Program. Nobody could speculate how long the war would last and I imagined that as an officer, I would very likely be assigned to a non-combat position. I knew what my objective was and I immediately executed my plan. 

My plan was put into motion to double up on my required courses for English, math, and science. In addition, I took courses at the Rhodes Summer School in midtown Manhattan. Fortunately, I was successful in fulfilling all the state regents requirements and graduated from high school in January 1946. On February 1, I enrolled at NYU’s College of Engineering and started the Feb/Sept accelerated program. By September 1946, I completed my freshman year of engineering school. 

At that point, I learned that the GI Bill of Rights Education Benefits were scheduled to be terminated and I certainly wanted to take advantage of the veteran benefits that were being offered. I shocked my parents with the decision that I made to enlist, and being that I was only 17 years old, I needed parental approval. 

My parents gave me their approval and the next day, I took the subway to the army recruiting center on Whitehall Street in Manhattan. I was enlisted, sworn in, and received travel orders to report for basic training at Fort Dix in New Jersey. 

The war with Japan was over. General MacArthur signed the peace treaty with Japan on the Battleship USS Missouri on September 2, 1945. The United States was now committed to establish and to administer the governance of Japan with an army of occupation as defined in the peace treaty agreement. 

Once I had completed my basic training, I was given a weekend pass and travel orders to report to a base near San Francisco, where I was processed for assignment. I was inoculated and issued a full complement of GI clothing which filled a huge duffle bag. Now, we were all set for departure and were loaded on to a troop ship for our assignment to Japan. 

We passed under the Golden Gate Bridge and two weeks later, our troop ship arrived at Yokohama. I remember those two weeks vividly since I was seasick for the entire fourteen days crossing the Pacific Ocean. You cannot imagine how happy and relieved I was to finally walk on terra firma. 

The entire boatload of 50,000 recruits were taken by train to the fourth replacement depot (referred by everyone as the fourth repl’ dep’le). This camp was a former Japanese naval training center. We were piloted there while each of us waited for travel orders to assigned occupation bases that had been established throughout the Japanese islands. 

After waiting for four days and freezing trying to sleep in unheated barracks, I received my orders. I boarded a train for Kobe, a major seaport city on the east coast of Hanchu, the largest of the Japanese islands. Kobe is about 300 miles north of Tokyo. It had been established as the main quartermaster port for the army occupation. I was assigned to a quartermaster company. The men in our company worked on the piers as longshoremen or as forklift operators unloading pallets of supplies from the ship’s hold. We moved the cargo either to adjacent warehouses or loaded the pallets on trucks to be distributed to army bases throughout the Japanese mainland and islands. 

It turned out that this quartermaster company of 400 men was fully staffed. The entire logistics operation, the unloading, storage and transshipment was planned and refined by Captain Hughes, the commanding officer. He was a logistics professional who took great pride in the efficiency of his operation. 

I later learned from the company clerk that the C.O. reviewed my papers and saw that I had completed one year of engineering studies. He was concerned that there was no vacancy in the table of organization for his company. He did not want to assign this 18-year-old educated kid to a job on the piers working as a longshoreman. He knew he had to find a solution to this dilemma. 

Two days later, the C.O. called in his company clerk and smilingly outlined his decision. “Do you know the empty quonset hut building next to our GHQ which was supposed to be used as our company library? I’ll assign the college kid to set it up. The hut is filled with crates of books and the walls are lined with steel shelves. His responsibility will be to unpack the crates and organize the books placed on the shelves. He can occupy the two rooms located at the end of the building which can be used as an office and the other his bedroom.” It pleased him that he found the solution and as a gleeful grin spread across his face, he knew the kid would be on duty 24/7.

The C.O. thought of another assignment that he could pass on to this soldier. He pulled out the chart with his official/approved T of O. He found an obscure unfilled slot titled “troop information & education/NCO” and he immediately decided the kid would be the company I&E NCO. His responsibility would be to prepare and deliver the weekly world current events presentation at the Saturday troop briefing in the assembly hall. It pleased him to make this decision since he did not enjoy doing it himself and he could then get an early start to visit his friends up the mountain. 

Setting up the library was easy and I was pleased doing it. In preparation for each weekly presentation, I would be given several mimeographed sheets containing significant world events from battalion HQ. The timing of these reports was at the beginning of the Cold War with Russia. It was a very difficult maturing transition for me since my anxiety level was high and I could feel my knees knocking. However, in time, it was interesting and the challenging part was to stand on a platform before 400 older men every Saturday morning to deliver the news about world events. 

This year, as we’ve approached this date, which was memorialized by President FDR, “a date that will live in infamy,” I thought of my army experience and wondered. What if I had decided to study journalism instead of engineering … I could have been another Edwin R. Murrow or maybe, another Walter Cronkite. 

A message to all the young readers out there… Get as much education as you possibly can. You never know where or how it will help you along your life’s journey. 


For a while now, I’ve been documenting the close relationship between the U.

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