DERRY — The Japanese bombers interrupted James Bilotta’s breakfast 71 years ago today at Pearl Harbor.
“We were surprised like everyone else,” the former Marine Corps gunnery sergeant recalled yesterday. “We were having breakfast and we saw the planes dropping bombs.”
Bilotta, 92, may have caught a break that day.
“They did strafe the tents when we were out on the chow line,” he said.
The attack on U.S. naval forces in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941 – “a date which will live in infamy,” President Franklin Roosevelt memorably said – left about 3,000 dead and brought the nation into World War II.
Bilotta doesn’t remember being afraid.
“No, we were surprised,” he said yesterday. “We weren’t frightened at all.”
The attack came on a beautiful day in paradise. The military forces initially were puzzled by the aircraft over head. But they soon understood.
“We knew when the bugler blew the call to arms,” Bilotta said.
They returned to their tents, awaiting the first of many orders to come over the next few years. He eventually made his way to the harbor to see the sunken and damaged ships.
He still shakes his head over the carnage. But the troops did not dwell long on the aftermath.
“We were too busy,” Bilotta said.
He would serve in the Pacific and was at Okinawa when the war ended in 1945.
“Relieved,” is how he felt when the war ended, he said, eager to get home, though he would serve two more years.
Afterward, back in Massachusetts, he met his wife of 65 years, Edie, 89, at a dance in Boston she almost didn’t attend. They raised a family of four and he worked many years for the U.S. Postal Service before retiring 27 years ago to Derry.
“The children of this generation really don’t know much about Pearl Harbor because the schools don’t teach it,” Edie Bilotta said.