William R. Pasewark Sr. was a Marine sergeant during the Iwo Jima invasion.
Seventy-five years ago today, on the 73-degree Sunday morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the Hawaiian island of Oahu awoke to the roar of hundreds of Japanese planes flying overhead and explosions as those planes dropped bombs and torpedoes on the American naval fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor.
Five time zones away, 17-year-old William R. Pasewark Sr. was in his bedroom in his parents' house in the Bronx, New York. It was a cold, clear Sunday afternoon and he was studying for a history exam the following day.
“In the afternoon, one of my parents came up and said, ‘The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor.' Very vivid in my memory,” he said.
And then he did what many other teenagers would do in his position.
“I went back to studying history,” said Pasewark, now 92, who retired from Texas Tech University in 1982 after 26 years as a business professor. “It did not affect me then as much as you would think now. I was 17 years old, I was not threatened with the draft yet, and I had other things of concern, like a history exam the next day. Pearl Harbor was 5,000 miles away. At 17 years of age, that didn't have as severe an impact as you would think. Hawaii was far away – geographically and mentally – from people like me. Young men who were 18 and 20 and vulnerable to the draft, I'm sure that had much more of an impact.”
He didn't know yet how much his life was about to change.
Altering the country
The next day, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave a speech that would go down in history, calling Dec. 7, 1941 “a date which will live in infamy” and urging Congress to declare war on Japan, which it did, one vote shy of complete unanimity.
War efforts made a big difference in the country Pasewark saw around him.
“It was dramatic,” he recalled. “It rallied us. Everybody was on the same beam of ‘we're at war and we need to do something about it.'”
Food and supply rations went into effect to save needed materials for the war effort and those fighting overseas, but that wasn't the only change.
“There was a patriotic fervor in the country,” Pasewark said. “I've never known anybody who wasn't patriotic in those days, with a common cause: ‘we're at war.'”
Because rationing came on the heels of the Great Depression, during which Pasewark's father had been out of work for 10 years, he doesn't recall a drastic effect on the family's lifestyle.
“In our home we ate very frugally,” he said. “I remember one Saturday my mother came downstairs and said, ‘We don't have any more money and from now on we're going to have to eat oatmeal every day.' So the first day we'd have just plain oatmeal, the next day oatmeal with brown sugar, the next day oatmeal with nuts, and on Saturday we looked forward to it because all the leftover oatmeal she made into pancakes and put Karo on it.”
Joining the military
Like a lot of teenagers, Pasewark was focused on his goals as his 18th birthday approached. He wanted to get a job in Manhattan and start his career. But the U.S. government had other plans.
“Right now, I'm much more patriotic than I was before,” Pasewark said. “On a scale of 1 to 10, right now in terms of patriotism and concern for my country and wanting to defend it, I would rate me about a 9. On Dec. 7 and for the next year until I became 18, I would rate it about a 5.”
In September 1942, Pasewark turned 18 and he received a letter from the draft board instructing him to report for his physical exam. He met a friend on the subway who also was headed to Grand Central Palace, where the examinations were being done. His friend wanted to become a Marine, but Pasewark preferred the air corps. For one thing, it was only a few months after “bloody Guadalcanal,” a hotly contested six-month campaign for control of a strategic Pacific island in which 1,600 American Marines and 24,000 Japanese soldiers died, not including thousands more who succumbed to tropical diseases such as malaria.
As it ended up, Pasewark didn't have much choice in the matter. A Marine recruiter commandeered his enlistment paperwork and that was that: “I was shanghaied into the Marine Corps,” Pasewark said.
In the military
Pasewark had good reason to be afraid. Two years later, he would play a role in the invasion of Iwo Jima, the costliest battle in Marine Corps history and the only battle in which the Marines suffered more casualties than the enemy.
Pasewark said he was not in the first waves of the Feb. 19, 1945, invasion, so he watched as injured Marines were brought back to the ship. One afternoon the bursting mortars were so close and loud it affected his hearing.
The battle lasted four weeks and included some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific theater. Before leading Iwo Jima, Pasewark and the other Marines brought bodies of fallen warriors from the hills for mass burial near the beach. Aboard ship, early the next morning, he was a member of the burial-at-sea honor guard for a Marine who died during the night. The vivid events are forever burned in his memory.
After returning from Iwo Jima, Pasewark was on the Hawaiian island of Maui training for the planned invasion of Japan. Hoping to avoid the expected 1 million casualties of such an invasion, the United States dropped atomic bombs on two major Japanese cities: Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and Nagasaki on Aug. 9. On Aug. 14, the Japanese announced their unconditional surrender, bringing an end to the war in the Pacific.
Only later did Pasewark realize that on Maui he was only about 100 miles from Pearl Harbor, where it had all started.
Seventy-five years after the attack at Pearl Harbor, Pasewark said the politically and socially fractured United States of today is nearly unrecognizable from the country that banded together to defeat the Axis powers.
“I can't think of very many ways it is similar, in terms of common goals, in terms of protecting our country, in terms of citizenship,” he said. “American citizens must understand what's at stake.
“Dec. 7 led to the war in the Pacific as well as the war in Europe. It shaped us, but just temporarily, unfortunately. It shaped us but not on a permanent basis. It pulled us together. As in any argument or battle, when you have a family, if one person is attacked in the family, everybody joins in if it's a strong family. It's the same thing with a country – if it's a strong country.”
For a man who 75 years ago heard the news and – unaware of its significance – went back to his history book, it's been quite a journey.
“Actually, now, looking back on all that's happened, it's a very significant date,” he said. “In fact, it's not commemorated enough.”