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.
They talk about how the nation came together as one behind Roosevelt, whom they regard as the most important person of the day.
“I think we took care of one another a little bit better than people do today,” she said. “We were a little more respectful of one another.”
Sometimes people try to get Bilotta to come to school to speak about Pearl Harbor. But his hearing isn’t so great – Edie blames those big guns from the war.
But there is something he would tell youngsters about Pearl Harbor.
“Life isn’t a bowl of cherries, for sure,” he said, “but we have a great country and they should try to do their best in school.”
The couple won’t do anything special today. They often go out for lunch.
“You pay this time,” Edie kids him.
Last night in Pelham, Veterans of Foreign Wars Commander Mark McCabe said they would close their meeting out by the service memorial, with thoughts of those – civilian and military – who gave their lives at Pearl Harbor.
“We’ll have 30 to 40 people there,” he said.
McCabe, a Navy veteran, recently visited Pearl Harbor on a trip to Hawaii.
“The first place we went was to the Arizona, before anything,” McCabe said.
The USS Arizona, a sunken battleship, is the centerpiece of a memorial to the lives lost at Pearl Harbor. The Bilottas visited it in 1979.
“It’s pretty eerie,” McCabe said. “You look over the side of what you’re standing on to see the oil bubbling up still. The main deck is below the water, just rusting away.”
He said he doesn’t think Pearl Harbor Day needs to be a holiday.
He’s afraid it would be another excuse for people to prioritize beer and chips over remembrance, as he said too often happens on Veterans Day and Memorial Day.
“It’s shameful more people don’t come out to pay tribute to the people who served,” McCabe said.
He said he wishes people would pause just for a few moments today, as happens on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, to remember.
“Stop for a moment. Take two,” McCabe said. “Get yourself in the mind. Recognize the sacrifice of the military and the civilians. It’s that simple.”