World War II veterans recall surprise attack 71 years later
It was just another autumn day across the nation when reports started to trickle in, first by word of mouth, then over the radio.
Shock and disbelief filled the country as news of smoke billowing into the clouds and planes crashing down from the sky were recounted.
America was under siege from a foreign invader, from a small group that nobody ever expected. They had attacked American soil.
It’s a familiar story to many today – but these events took place 71 years ago this morning. It was the day Pearl Harbor was attacked and a sleeping giant was awoken.
In New Jersey, Walter Chelchowski, now an Aiken resident, ran out of his high school classroom to hear the news coming over the radio.
“It was a shock, especially when you see the damage that was done,” Chelchowski recalled. “Who the hell would have thought that the Japanese would come from clear over there and sneak in on us. From that distance. Unbelievable, especially for a kid. It’s vivid as hell. I can still see the damage.
“That’s why everybody was signing up, they were angry and they wanted to get even.”
Nearly 1,000 miles away, Julian Proctor sat in his grandmother’s house in southern Georgia, but with no connection to the outside world, he was oblivious to the events taking place in the Pacific Ocean. He would find out when he returned home the next day.
They both knew what was coming next.
“It was a great surprise,” Proctor, who now lives in Warrenville, recalled. “Back then, you didn’t have all this radio and TV, you didn’t know what was going on. I thought very little about Japan. You learned about it in school, but what could they do to us?
“There was mixed feelings toward it, whether you wanted to hate them or just go and shoot them. It was just, ‘boy let me go.’ That was it.”
The day following the attack, President Franklin D. Roosevelt would declare war on Japan – the tiny country on the other side of the ocean that pulled off the most stunning attack imaginable. Days later, Roosevelt would declare war on the allies of the Rising Sun – Italy and Germany.
Thousands of young American boys formed lines that stretched for blocks outside of military recruiting stations. Those who didn’t would be called on soon enough when the draft was enacted.
Chelchowski and Proctor would be among the millions drafted to fight for their country – and they couldn’t have been happier.
“I always figured I was going to be a soldier one way or another,“ Chelchowski said. “It’s not like today ... when the Japanese attacked, everybody wanted to go ... it was a very patriotic time.
“The country was very patriotic. I think the attack unified the nation.”
The sense of patriotism was echoed by Proctor.
“The patriotism, to try to take care of that thing and get it over with because they had done messed us up,” Proctor said of his feelings going to war. “I was 18 when I went in, not old enough to know any better. Ready to go, I didn’t have any ties at that time, I had quit school and was ready to go. Fight for the country, that was it at that time.”
American pride filled the hearts of young men preparing to fight for their country and women to work just as hard taking care of the nation left behind. American flags flew from every house on the street.
They would later bear a gold or red star.
Each red star showed how many men from that house were fighting in the war. Each gold star showed how many would not return.
Two teenagers from different sides of the nation would soon traverse the country through training schools, then be shipped to England.
Both were in the Army Air Corps and both went to basic training in Miami Beach, where the government turned all of the hotels that lined the coast into makeshift barracks. After nearly a year of training, they would depart oversees.
Chelchowski would make his way from England to Italy where he would stay the duration of the war flying reconnaissance missions over Germany in a B-17.
“I’d send my mother letters saying, ‘Mom, send me cigarettes,’” Chelchowski said. “Everything was rationed. She would wait in these long lines to buy them, then send them to me, and I’d sell them to the Italians for $10 a pack. Poor mom, she thought I started smoking. I feel so sorry when I get to thinking about it.”
Proctor would join his crew in a B-24, flying 34 bombing missions over France and Germany. He was first a belly gunner, working the machine gun that sat in a glass turret under plane, and later would find himself shooting his rifle out the side windows during bombing raids.
After seven months of avoiding enemy attacks from the ground, he would return home.
“I hated to leave my girlfriend. I finally came back and got her. I’ve had her for 68 years since,” Proctor said. “A lot of times, when I think back, it seems like a dream. I can’t fathom doing all that flying over Germany and them shooting at us.”
After the European war ended, both prepared to continue the fight in Japan. That war would end before either made it over.
Chelchowski would go on to serve 33 years in the military and 12 years with the Department of Defense. He would travel the globe as a member of the Army, Air Force and Navy. Near the end of his military career, he would join his son Dick fighting the war in Korea.
“They sent me all over this damn world,” Chelchowski joked.
Today, they both sit in their chairs in Aiken and Warrenville, both wearing the same smile as they think about the mischief they both got away with, the stories they will appreciate more than anyone and the amazement that they survived.