1917 — “Rainbow Division” lands in France. America had entered the war in Europe earlier in the year but the U.S. Army was unprepared to fight. National Guard units had some training so it was suggested by a young Army officer, Douglas MacArthur, that units from various states be brought together to form one 27,000 man division. It would stretch across the nation like a rainbow and thus the name was born. It was noted that the Civil War had ended 50 years earlier and this would be the first time since then soldiers from the North and South would fight side by side. Much was made about the Rainbow Division representing America as a show of unity. There was a farewell parade through the streets of New York City as the division left for France. The Army was segregated at that time and the 15th New York Infantry, a Black regiment, asked to join the parade. They were denied with the comment that black is not a color in the rainbow. This regiment fought with distinction in France and became known as the Harlem Hell Fighters.
So much for a show of unity. From the earliest days of our existence, with the treatment of the Harlem Hell Fighters one small example, right down to George Floyd, you can’t fault America for being inconsistent.
1941 — Pearl Harbor. Just before 8AM on a sunny, peaceful Sunday, Japanese warplanes swooped between the mountains near Oahu, Hawaii and descended on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. Pacific Fleet was caught totally unawares. In minutes there was carnage. This from atomicheritage.org: “Residents who watched the attack from afar observed in horror as the screams of men on the sunken battleships ripped through the air, smoke rose from the sea, and the injured swam in bloody waters slick with burning oil. When the effects of the attack subsided, the grim casualties became known: 2,403 American civilians and military personnel had been killed, and 1,178 wounded.” All eight battleships were damaged and four were sunk, as were other navy ships. Luckily there were no aircraft carriers, which were the future of naval warfare, in port. The Japanese also neglected to attack the vulnerable fuel depots which would have further crippled the fleet. The attack galvanized America and on December 8th the U.S. Congress declared war on Japan.
Not too long ago someone asked me how and when I developed my interest in history. I gave it some thought and decided some of it had to do with Pearl Harbor. I was in early grade school and the teacher announced it was Pearl Harbor Day. At that time it wasn’t ancient history, having taken place less than ten years earlier. She gave us a cursory lesson and my interest was piqued. First time in school anything had aroused my interest. Throughout my education I was an indifferent student except when it came to history, and that interest has remained with me for life.
I was in a writing group for many years. We’d get together and read what we had written, then discuss, praise, criticize, encourage, and argue. These were enjoyable sessions made possible from hours sitting in front of a keyboard. After we finished we’d retire to a bar. After Johnny’s Bar in St. Paul, our own Algonquin in the form of a cement block, windowless bar, closed up, we went in search of a replacement. We settled on Tracks, a bar in a seedy motel sometimes referred to as the hookers’ hotel. We were in pursuit of inspiration rather than class. Eight of us attended regularly, including Tovah, the daughter of Dick and Mary, two other members of the group. Tovah had Downs Syndrome and while she didn’t participate in the writing discussions, once she became old enough she enjoyed a beer with the rest of us. One night a little band came in Tracks to play. They were billed as The Traveling Elvis’s. That alone suggested the night held some possibilities. The band consisted of three members. The lead man, Tom, played guitar and sang. Late forties to early fifties, a once good-looking man who had gone slightly to seed. A second guitar player, who never sang or even changed his expression, was a quite tall man with a beard and beret and bore a striking resemblance to Che Guevara. The third member, Ray, was a small, wiry man who must have been ninety years old. Oddly enough it was Ray who carried in all the speakers and equipment while Tom set up and Che busied himself tuning his guitar. Ray was a harmonica player and in introducing the band Tom said Ray was a survivor of Pearl Harbor.
I’m not sure how to describe their music, not country, not rock and roll, not folk, maybe a blend of all three. Tom was an exuberant performer, strutting about like Mick Jagger on a runway. Che never moved a muscle other than his fingers and Ray played his harmonica with an intense passion. Tovah became quite taken with the band and got up and stood right in front of them. Tom asked her if she wanted to join them and she nodded. He got a barstool, helped her up on it and gave her a spare guitar. While they played Tovah strummed the guitar, quite pleased with her new rock and roll fame.
There was a regular at the bar, Roger, a tall, rangy, scruffy man with long unkempt hair. Roger was outgoing and more than a bit off center. He’d occasionally come and talk with us and expound on some weird theory. One night I overheard another patron say to him, “You know, you got little people living inside your head who don’t like you.” Anyway, listening to the music and sitting at the bar, Roger lit his cigarette lighter and held it in the air as if at a rock concert. When Tom asked if there were any requests Roger shouted out, “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”
The Traveling Elvis’s went on break and I took the opportunity to talk to Ray. I asked him about Pearl Harbor and he was willing to talk. He had been aboard the USS Nevada, one of the battleships badly damaged. He described how they had gotten underway, trying to put to sea. But the captain worried they might sink in the entrance to Pearl Harbor, blocking it, so he ran the Nevada aground. Ray talked general tactics, revealing nothing personal and then it was time for the band to play again. Years later I began interviewing WWII veterans and doing oral histories. I tried to find Ray and The Traveling Elvis’s but was unable.
But that night at Tracks still remains a special time in the collective memory of the writing group.