Art Works Blog

A Letter from Pearl Harbor, 1941

Washington, DC

"Drive-in" by Charles Henry via Flickr

In the Operation Homecoming section on our website, you can browse essays on writing from authors such as Richard Bausch and Dan Rifenburg, writing samples such as "Star-Fix," Marilyn Nelson's poem about the Tuskegee Airmen, and writing prompts to help you tell your own story. One such prompt instructs, "Think of an unforgettable event in your own life and write about it in detail...If you have an event in mind but don?t know how to begin, just write 'On [date] here?s what happened?,' or, start it as if you were writing a letter to a close friend or family member and go from there."

Though William Czako, a sailor aboard the USS New Orleans during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on this day in 1941, certainly didn't have this prompt in mind during the bombing, this excerpt from a letter to his sister Helen proves what a powerful piece of writing can result just from beginning, "Dear Sis....."

Dear Sis:

It is now 9:05 Sunday morning and we?ve been bombed now for over an hour.? Our anti aircraft guns are yammering and every so often a bomb strikes so close as to rock this ship. Again a bomb. We?re helpless down here in the Forward Engine Room because our main engines are all tore down. We?re trying to get underway if possible. We were just struck by a bomb near the bow. We?re fighting back as much as possible because we have no power to load our guns, no power circuits to fire them. It is all being done by hand?.

We?ve lit off all the boilers that are not out of commission and are trying to get underway so that we will not be altogether helpless by laying alongside the dock and be a stationary target. Those bombs are getting closer---God grant that they do not hit that loaded oil tanker that is lying right across from us. Ten million gallons of fuel oil would bathe this ship in an inferno of fire?. I am on the interior communications telephone and I can hear the various stations screaming orders at one another. A man just brought us our gas masks?. We?ve been struck several times now but fortunately there are no casualties as yet?.

There has been a lull for a few minutes but there they go again. Strangely Sis, I?m not excited but my heart is beating a little faster from all that firing. I know that this is not a drill because the concussion of exploding bombs is jarring the whole ship. I don?t know why I am writing this because if we are hit with a bomb here---they won?t find enough of me and the rest---let alone this letter. I imagine it is to show myself that I can be calm under fire. A few of the boys here are white faced and their voices hushed and choked. They too know that this is no joke or mock battle---but the real stuff?.

Czako survived the attack, went on to fight in the Pacific campaign against the Japanese, and then returned home in 1946.

(Letter from Behind the Lines: Powerful and Revealing American and Foreign War Letters---and One Man?s Search to Find Them (Scribner), edited by Andrew Carroll. Copyright © 2005 Sandra Cook.)

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