The wars seemed far away on that Saturday, Dec. 6, 72 years ago. Hitler's armies had already conquered most of Europe and were within howitzer range of Moscow. Japan had expanded its armed reach over much of Asia. But it was all happening thousands of miles from our shores. Why worry?

Many of us sympathized with England and China, and thought of Hitler and Tojo as bad guys who ought to be dealt with. But there were strong voices urging us to stay neutral. We had helped before in World War I at the cost of more than 50,000 American lives lost in France. Now Europeans were squabbling again!

Along with isolationists in Congress, the America First Committee even had famed Charles Lindbergh in its ranks. And, unbelievable as it sounds, an outfit called the German-American Bund had been operating a Hitler Youth-type camp in New Jersey. I can still hear the strident voice of U.S. Rep. Hamilton Fish exclaiming we had two large oceans forming natural bulwarks of protection ... from where could Hitler launch an attack against us?

On Dec. 7, the answer came from a different direction. A Japanese fleet of airplane carriers crossed the Pacific and attacked our naval base at Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, attacked! It was difficult to believe. I and two teenage friends, Kenny Harris and Lee Roundsville, wondered if we'd be in it before the war ended. We were: Harris became a medic in the Far East, and Roundsville flew as a belly gunner on a B-24 bomber out of Italy. And I flew in the Army Air Corps.

Nearly all Americans alive at the time would always remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news about Pearl Harbor. (The same would be true related to the deaths of Roosevelt and Kennedy.)

I had stopped in a small diner after shooting baskets at a nearby playground when I heard the news on the radio. My reaction was wrong by nearly four years as I told the owner we'd wipe them out in six months.

Several years ago, I interviewed three Pearl Harbor survivors: Rusty Ryan and Mickey Ganitch, both on the battleship Pennsylvania, and Marvin Recknor, who was on the cruiser San Francisco.

With both ships in dry dock for repairs, they told of a heroic civilian crane operator who maneuvered back and forth, spoiling the aim of Japanese planes. I later learned his name was George Walters -- one of the war's first heroes.

But Ganitch had an unusual story: he was dressed in his football uniform while at his crow's nest post on the USS Pennsylvania.

Their team was scheduled to play one from the USS Arizona that Sunday for the fleet championship ... sadly, it would never happen.

Contact Joe King at alamedanews@bayareanewsgroup.com.

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