We flew at 29,000 feet. I breathed through a rubber mask. We had to run a gauntlet of anti-aircraft fire over the target. Clouds got in the way, and we had to go over the target again, and we got hit. The wing and the engines on one side were gone. Our plane was going down. I lost my oxygen mask, and my intercom. As I crawled to the emergency exit, I clipped on my parachute pack. I pulled the hinges to release the door, but I couldn’t open it, and I was getting light headed. Behind me, the ball turret gunner, Bill O’Malley, had come up from underneath, and my best friend, Mike Brennan, was standing in the doorway of the radio compartment. Mike and I were both from New York City, and we were both eighteen.
I threw my back against the door, and I fell out of the airplane.
I had never parachuted before or been given any instruction, but I knew not to pull my chute right away. I’d read about parachuting in the air force magazine. You might say reading saved my life. I was on my back, and it was like lying on a mattress, only my ears hurt, and my goggles were battering me in the face. I fell. I was above the clouds, and then I was in them, and that’s when I pulled the chute, and it opened.
I drifted slowly to the ground All the planes had disappeared. A black column of smoke had risen where the bombs had fallen. The earth was beneath me like a giant brown bowl. A beautiful April day - only someone was shooting at me.
I was taken prisoner by the Germans almost immediately. O’Malley and Mike Brennan also landed safely, but Mike was shot –murdered- by a German officer. Of the eight men on my crew, only O’Malley and I survived. I was a POW for two weeks, until the war ended.
That was my experience of war, which I wrote about in my book The Last Mission. When my editor asked me to write about a boy and Pearl Harbor, almost at once, a little jingle echoed in my head. A boy at war; a boy no more. It was both the beginning and the end of my story, the action and the meaning. This would be a story about a boy in Pearl Harbor and how that involvement changed him. It was only after I wrote the book that I realized I had been a boy at war, and then a boy no more.
When I began to write, Adam Pelko came quickly out of the shadows early that Sunday morning, poking around the shore with his friends. But then the questions came. Was this an accessible shore? Was it off limits? Was there a fence? I did a lot of reading and studying old photos. I wanted to know the way Pearl Harbor used to look. I wanted to be accurate about the roads, the trees, the plants, which way the wind blew. For some of these questions I was able to turn to Solomon Kaulukukui, a school principal I met at a library conference. When I had questions, I went to him and he unfailingly and patiently responded.
In the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, there was and anti Japanese hysteria, the arrest of Japanese Americans in Hawaii, and forcible removal and internments on the mainland. Only years later did the American government apologize for the suffering it had caused. I wrote about the internments in A Boy No More , my second book about Adam and his friend Davi And I wrote about Adam once more in Heroes Don’t Run when Adam, now a young marine takes part in the bloody Okinawa campaign
In a tiny Czech village, there is a black marble memorial to my crew. The words engraved on the stone read, “Nezapomenemei.” “Never to forget.”
We need to remember. We need to know our history. The present rests on the words and deeds of those who came before us, their sacrifices and heroism, their foresight and folly. The present, this moment, your moment in time, your actions, your deeds, will influence and shape what is to come. Never forget that.