Adolf Hitler made two enormous blunders that led eventually to the downfall of Nazi Germany. One was his ill-fated invasion of Russia, which brought the Soviet Union into the war on the side of Britain. The other was declaring war against the United States.
In a blustery address to the German Reichstag after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hitler hurled personal insults at Franklin D. Roosevelt and called for the Reichstag to support a declaration of war. The deputies leaped to their feet cheering.
In Rome the following day, Benito Mussolini proclaimed his own Fascist declaration of war against the United States. The tripartite circle was now complete.
The world was at war.
In the first week of the war, Japanese planes sank two British battleships off the coast of Malaya. Along with the crippling American losses at Pearl Harbor, this blow gave the Japanese fleet complete supremacy in the Pacific, the China Seas and the Indian Ocean.
America was stunned.
In the tumultuous weeks and months that followed, the nation lurched toward total mobilization. Thousands of young Americans enlisted in the armed forces without waiting for the draft.
January 1942, on the eve of becoming twenty, I announced to my mother that I wanted to try out for the Naval Aviation flight program. The washout rate was high, that I knew. But I wanted to be a Navy pilot. I was determined to give it my best shot.
I suppose my childhood enthusiasm for airplanes and flying played a role in my going for the Wings of Gold.
But that goal was bolstered, I admit, by a strong sense of duty to my country—the kind of simple, unabashed patriotism that may be out of style in today’s cynical environment.
During the bleak days following Pearl Harbor, we felt that the real issue in America was beat or be beaten. I felt a strong, personal responsibility to get involved.
It took careful cajoling to get my mother to go along. Eventually, she gave me her full support and I headed downtown to the US Navy recruiting office in Portland, where I was sworn in almost immediately as a lowly Seaman Second Class. The following day, they put me on a train to Seattle for two or three long days of physical and written exams at the Twelfth Naval District headquarters overlooking Puget Sound.