December 8, 1941 Lincoln, Nebraska
Maryellen McCracken woke up early on her twentieth birthday so she could have breakfast with her brother and sister. As was their tradition, she had candle on her pancake, and there was a rush of activity. Her sister, June, age sixteen, was headed to Lincoln High School, while her younger brother, Dale, age fourteen, was going to Irving Junior High. Her other brother, Bob, age eighteen, was attending Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, Missouri and wouldn’t be home for Christmas for another ten days. Maryellen was a sophomore at the University of Nebraska, but her first class didn’t start for two hours.
Before the children piled into their father’s car to transport to school, their father, C.C. McCracken, held up his hand for quiet.
“Before we go our separate ways, there is something you need to hear,” he began. “I got a telephone call early this morning. It appears that Japanese bomber planes and naval destroyers attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii yesterday morning before dawn. They took our base by surprise and there were many fatalities and injuries. The President will be addressing the nation and Congress. Mother is going to stay home and listen to the radio for updates, but you will probably hear more about this today. I expect this means we have entered the conflict.”
Maryellen sank into a Chippendale dining chair. “It’s happened. We’re at war? On my birthday?” Her eyes darted from her mother, Hannah, to C.C. as her hand flew to cover her mouth.
Her father ushered June and Dale out to the garage.
“Mary, where is Melvin?” Hannah, asked. “And when was the last time you heard from him?”
Maryellen knit her brows. Why is she asking about my boyfriend? “He’s been at Camp Robinson in Arkansas for almost a year. He’s a squad leader, you know that. I got a letter Saturday, do you want to see it?”
“He hasn’t mentioned anything about being deployed to the Pacific?”
“He’ll have to go now, won’t he? Mel and probably all those men at Camp Robinson will be sent there to fight.” Tears filled her eyes but it was too unreal to grasp. “What about Bob? He’s taking military training right now. Do you think they might start drafting younger men?”
“We don’t know any of that yet, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Hannah said, folding her into an embrace. Maryellen broke away and ran up the stairs to her room. She heard her mother turning on the radio, but she couldn’t listen. She flung herself on her bed and sobbed.
This was not the way any of this was supposed to go today. Her parents always bought her something lovely for her birthday. She was planning to celebrate with her girlfriends later. The President was supposed to be negotiating with the Japanese and solving this whole war problem. Melvin was supposed to come home, not go off to war. Why did any of this have to happen on her birthday?
She looked around her room. She loved this room, and this house on South Fortieth Street. They’d moved in here when the house was built when she was nearly eight years old, and it had been full of happy memories with her family. But she thought she’d be moving out soon. She thought she’d be getting married.
She went back downstairs in time to hear President Roosevelt on the radio addressing Congress. “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.” Hannah was sitting on a chair next to the radio in the living room. Mary crossed to her and sat at her feet with her head in her mother’s lap. Hannah laid a hand on her hair.
The president went on to say that Japan had pretended to be in peace talks while planning this attack for weeks, and that several other islands in the area, including the Philippines and Guam had also been attacked in the past hours. He asked Congress to declare that a state of war existed between the United States and Japan.
They talked about the news in the two classes she had that day. She stopped by the Gamma Phi Beta sorority house on her way home, and found several girls crying, not knowing the fate of their boyfriends who were stationed near one of the affected locations.
By the time she got back to her family home, the first of the evening papers had been delivered and was sitting on the table.
“WAR DECLARED BY U.S. 3000 KILLED, WOUNDED IN JAP ATTACK ON HONOLULU” the headline read. She shook her head. It seemed like a bad dream.
Hannah was busy in the kitchen, frosting a cake, Maryellen’s birthday cake. A ham was baking in the oven, and potatoes were peeled, ready to boil and mash.
“Mom, you’re still planning my birthday dinner? Even with everything that is going on today?”
“Of course, Darling. It is days like this that remind you how important family is. Our family began twenty years ago today, when you were born almost a year after we were married. That is not a day that will live in infamy but a day we will always treasure and celebrate. We need a little fun and comradery today. This war may affect us in many ways in the next months and years. But today we are still standing as one. Today is still your twentieth birthday. We have time to make good memories.”
My mother, Maryellen did marry my father, Burl Melvin Johnson about ten months later before he was deployed to the Philippines during World War II. Her brother Bob was deployed to India. Younger brother Dale served at the Great Lakes Naval Academy but was not deployed overseas. All survived the war.
Claudia Johnson Severin