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Remembering Pearl Harbor: The day that will live in infamy

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Robert Campion served in the U.S. Army from 1941 to 1945 in the 64th Coast Artillery Regiment during the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
December 7, 2017 - 11:24 am

It’s known as the day that will live in infamy.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, hundreds of Japanese military aircraft launched a secret sneak attack against the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Last Thursday, the nation commemorated the 76th anniversary of the horrific attack, with some reflecting on the moment that marked America’s entry into World War II.

Columbia-Greene Community College President Jim Campion’s father, Robert, was at Pearl Harbor.

Robert Campion served in the U.S. Army from 1941 to 1945 in the 64th Coast Artillery Regiment. Although Robert did not talk much about the war with his son, he left Jim a legacy — a written account of his experience.

Jim has carried his father’s letter with him ever since.

“This is one of the days in my life that I’ll never forget,” Robert wrote. “This is the day of the surprise attack on our most important base in the Pacific.”

While on guard duty at Fort Shafter on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Robert saw a few planes “diving over Pearl Harbor.” He was 28 at the time of the attack.

“Thinking it was just some maneuvers between Army and Navy, we forgot the whole issue for a few minutes,” Robert wrote. “Suddenly things started to fall around us, then we knew it was the real thing.”

Assigned to the anti-aircraft unit, Robert was called to the harbor and Hickam Field.

“Fortunately, I have survived this day of horror and many others with the good Lord’s help,” Robert wrote. “I hope this kind of day never happens again where so many men died without even having a chance to fight.”

Jim said he did not know much beyond what his father wrote.

“He never really talked of his experiences when I was growing up, but I do distinctly remember whenever there was a thunderstorm or particularly at night when the would thunder would wake him up, he would be up, pacing around the house,” Jim said. “That brought back memories of his experience at Pearl Harbor.”

After the war, Robert worked as head cook at Hudson River Psychiatric Center in Poughkeepsie. He raised his family in Poughkeepsie. Jim moved to Livingston in 1979 and began serving as C-GCC president in 1974. Robert Campion died in 1972.

“I think that he was present at a historic moment and in looking back at it now, just to know how humble he was about it, I think that says a lot about his generation... I think that stayed with me that he never bragged about his service. He just went on with his life.”

Events leading up to the attack

Ron Gabriele, of Athens, recently spoke to the Catskill Rotary Club about the events leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

“Those two words alone — ‘Pearl Harbor’ — are enough to send a cold chill up and down the spine of Americans of a certain age,” Gabriele said. “Americans who were alive and of the age of understanding on that day will, for the remainder of their lives, be able to tell others where they were and what they were doing in intimate detail.”

The United States was not a military superpower in 1939 and there were fewer than 250,000 men in uniform. In July 1941, Roosevelt issued a proclamation that froze Japanese assets in the United States. A short time later, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. and Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson devised a plan if any Japanese assets were unfrozen, the funds could not be used to buy oil, Gabriele said. This was considered an embargo, which alarmed Japan because the country purchased 80 percent of its oil from the United States.

“This is critical, oil being, of course, the main ingredient in a modern war machine,” Gabriele said. “Historians suggest that this, the asset freeze, is the match that lights the fuse that explodes into World War II between Japan and the United States.” At that time, the Imperial Japanese Army was influential and many Japanese officials voted the way the Army wanted them to, Gabriele said. Emperor Hirohito often made vague statements about going to war — statements that army officials would then misconstrue to make it sound as if Hirohito favored war against the United States.

“We’re not sure how many politicians were actually against the war, but for fear of their lives wouldn’t say so,” Gabriele said.

It was Gen. Hideki Tojo, who would become Japan’s prime minister in 1941, who was the most hawkish about going to war with the United States. Adm. Isoruka Yamamoto of the Imperial Navy was most opposed because he knew about the strength of the United States’ industrial capabilities, Gabriele said.

It would be Yamamoto who was asked by the Japanese to plan the attack on Pearl Harbor — a fact that surprised Gabriele.

“I have a grudging respect, a grudging admiration for this guy, he was rational, he seemed more mature,” Gabriele said of Yamamoto. “Tojo was a nut.”

Gabriele remembers hearing bits and pieces about World War II as a child and said his uncle, who served during the war in the 9th Infantry Division, was rewarded a Silver Star Medal. This information makes telling the history easy and Gabriele heard war stories from World War II veterans.

“It just became very natural,” Gabriele said. “In my growing up years, these guys [World War II veterans] were my heroes.”