Jay Dawley graduated from West Point in 1939, having entered the military academy four years earlier. It was prescient, as his family knew that war was coming.
“My father was pretty certain of it and he said, ‘I’ll send you to any college in the country, but I think that West Point would be a good choice,’” Dawley reported to me three years ago. Of course, he noted, having an uncle in Congress — Sen. Stephen Young — helped give him a perspective on the greater world.
Dawley excelled at the Point, graduating No. 2 in his class. Franklin Roosevelt addressed the Class of ’39 and personally handed the young man from Cleveland his diploma. He recalled that FDR sat on a stool as he awarded the certificates.
Dawley was present at Pearl Harbor on that date that would live in infamy. As fate would have it, he had been due to begin leave on December 8, 1941. The Japanese had other plans for him.
He initially didn’t think it was an attack. It couldn’t have been. “I heard some bangs like airplane noises and some explosions and I thought, ‘Gosh, I’ll bet there’s a crash. Probably the Navy maneuvering or something … and I’ll bet somebody crashed.’” But when he looked outside there were dozens of Rising Suns in the sky.
When under attack, most people seek shelter. Not Lt. Dawley, or any of the service members stationed there that day. “We got out, got our rifles and fired at these airplanes. They were about 400 feet above us.” He did this in his bathrobe.
It was “the first time I’d ever fired at anybody in anger,” he recalled. Of course, seeing your brothers in arms slaughtered in a cowardly attack would bring out the anger in even the calmest man.
Dawley’s other immediate reaction was shock and awe: “I was just overlooking Pearl Harbor. I saw the dangers, all the smoke and things, and [knew] this is major war. And [thinking], what is my great country going to do about it? Here I am seeing the war itself start.” Imagine: witnessing an unprovoked attack first-hand, and realizing that the world, much less your country, was not going to be the same. Twenty years earlier, a generation of young men had died in the so-called War to End All Wars. Not so. Instead, another one was here.
Dawley immediately cancelled his own leave – before any commanding officer would do so. He was determined to see this through on his terms. Wars are often brought about by old men but are fought by young men. Dawley, who would rise to the rank of colonel, passed away several years ago, yet another unsung hero of military service. His father had once chased Pancho Villa all over Mexico as part of the National Guard, so service was deep in his blood. Still, the Army in 1941 was a pretty casual affair. “There was a kind of soldiering, you might say kind of goldbricking around,” was how Dawley described it. But he was still proud to wear the uniform and shortly would become prouder still.
The next day, Roosevelt made his historic call for a declaration of war before a joint session of Congress. It was a momentous occasion, and the vote was done in less than an hour after FDR gave his famous “date which will live in infamy” speech. All senators and representatives – save one – voted for war.
One of the witnesses to Roosevelt’s momentous speech was John Dingell Jr., at the time a 15-year old page in the House of Representatives. His father, John Dingell Sr., was a representative from Michigan. (Dingell Jr. would later replace his father in Congress, serving admirably for nearly 60 years.) Decades later, Dingell recalled the 500-word speech as “extraordinary,” comparing it to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. And he remembered the “enormous” applause that often interrupted Roosevelt.
Part of Dingell’s job was the help reporters get to their seats. He recalled doing so for conservative columnist Fulton Lewis and his heavy audiotaping machine. It was the first time the House permitted the use of film, photography and other recording devices in the chamber.
When it came to the vote, Rep. Jeannette Rankin’s sole objection to the war was met with hisses and boos. John remembers his father yelling, “Sit down, sister!” at the Montana congresswoman. Dingell Sr. “had enormously powerful feelings,” his son explained, partly because of his Polish ancestry. A country rich in history and culture, Poland was being decimated by the Nazis, so any opposition to the war declaration was akin, in the congressman’s eyes, to accepting such destruction. He hated the non-interventionist America First Committee with a passion for that very reason.
Dingell Jr., witnessing history, was afraid. He was a teenager, after all. “I’m scared to death, and we were not sure we could win. First of all, nobody knew what the hell had happened. We knew a bunch of battleships had gotten sunk, but we didn’t know how many. We didn’t realize the day of the battleship was over and that the aircraft carrier was the new queen in the seas. … They actually thought there was going to be an invasion” of the U.S. homeland.
Roosevelt was – and continues to be – a personal hero of his. The Great Depression had crippled the United States, and FDR brought it back to life. The war would be vast in scale, but to a larger-than-life president, that made little difference.
And thus were two young men, thousands of miles apart, witnesses to history. Both were in service to their country, drawn together by a patriotism that too few today can fully fathom.