180 Relative   /   List of Ed's writings and art
Ed Bookhardt  Pt.3 180-01U
December 2008
By Commander Ed Bookhardt, USN Retired
A historic event that took place sixty-seven years ago has slowly faded from the National psyche. For some a mere passage in a history book. Yet for others it is a day that will be remembered for a lifetime...
Ed Bookhardt      December 2008
The tree house in the fork of the old Chinaberry was a formidable fortress. It was the secret headquarters of the “American Eagles.” A club founded with several of my neighborhood chums to defend the USA against the evil Axis powers. Our arsenal included two Red Ryder bb-guns; a pair of Tom Mix pearl-handled cap pistols with leather studded holsters, Babe Ruth baseball bats, a bone handle jack-knife and three homemade slingshots.

Entrance to the fort was gained via a knotted rope ladder hanging from the main branch. It was frayed and chewed off about three feet above the ground where my pups Eleanor and Franklin [our family were Democrats] had released their frustrations. Unable to climb the rope to be with the gang they would leap in the air, grab the first knot and swing back and forth in the breeze Tarzan fashion until their jaws tired.

A small Fourth of July parade flag fluttered from the patchy rooftop. Menacing “skull and crossbones” donned the rough plank door. For three eleven year olds, it was an awesome structure - a marvel of high-rise construction ingenuity. To other family members it was a lumberyard in the sky. To my staunch German grandmother it was an eyesore that was barely tolerated.

That first weekend in December 1941 was absolutely perfect. Christmas was only a few weeks away. There were hints of a new bike for my paper route and the war news from Europe was very exciting to adventurous backyard warriors. Further, we had taken a trip to the small Orlando airport that Saturday in Uncle’s big black Willys to see for the first time, several “potbellied” twin-engine bombers flown in as part of the rapid build up of the Army Airbase under construction.

When we arrived, the Douglas bombers were tied down in a grassy dairy pasture adjoining the airport. Their notable features were the tall tail rudders adorned with bright horizontal red and white stripes. White stars with red bull’s eyes marked the wings and fuselage. The sun glistening off their brightly polished aluminum skin lighted the area with reverberating rays.

An encampment of olive colored tents nestled in long neat rows was pitched nearby. Soldiers hurried about performing their various duties. Sentries wearing “Smoky Bear” hats, khaki leggings and shouldering Springfield rifles, paced back and forth in stiff military precision between the planes and the curious local onlookers.

People had gathered along the newly installed perimeter chain-link fence to see for the first time the ongoing military activities. Some brought picnic baskets and settled in the adjoining woods to enjoy the unusual festivities. An indescribable aura of gayety and excitement filled the air - a major change from the mundane tempo of life people had endured during the Depression of the previous ten years.

We boys found an open space along the fence line and pressed our faces deep into the wire to gain the best view possible. My heart pounded with wonder at the magnificent sight of the shinny warplanes and soldiers in uniform. For me, that warm late autumn afternoon of long ago was very special... the very best of times. As events developed, it would be a historical weekend, which would remain deeply etched in my mind for the remainder of my life.

On Sunday among the boughs of the Chinaberry tree, a secret ceremony was conducted. Inspired by the previous day's journey, we sat in a circle and took a secret oath. Pricking our fingers, we each swore to fight all spies and saboteurs:  blood-brothers forever!

As “Eagles” we would vigilantly scan the skies for invading aircraft. Keen eyed, I knew the silhouettes of every airplane from Ford Tri-motors, Curtis P-40s and Spitfires to German ME-109s. I could easily spot a speck in the sky miles away using two empty toilet paper tubes bound together with rubber bands for binoculars. Each sighting was neatly recorded in a school notebook using our cherished Lone Ranger Decoder Rings recently obtained from the Merita Bread Company for ten cents and a bread label.

We chattered into the afternoon, arguing over which military service was best. Each vowing to join as soon as we were old enough to enlist. My pals having seen the bombers wanted to join the Army Air Corps. Since my father and uncle had served in the Navy, I wanted to be a sailor. I had visions of sailing the seas on a mighty battleship or flying a sleek fighter from the deck of an aircraft carrier. I was childishly disappointed that there was no Navy installations nearby that we could visit, as we had the new Air Base.

To show my loyalty as a future Bluejacket, I had cut pictures of naval ships and planes from magazines and newspapers and pasted them all over the tree house walls. This of course annoyed my prospective Air Corps buddies. I also had two prized “Commander Winslow of the Navy,” Big-Little books stashed in the corner with the stack of Captain Marvel comic books we had accumulated. The sounds of distant aircraft would bring us to “Battle Stations”! We would scurry out on the limb to identify it; followed by an official entry in the Eagles’ note book. It was all so very exciting!

Suddenly, a shrill shout from the back porch got our attention. Grandmother’s voice always got our attention! With hands shading her eyes from the late afternoon sun she anxiously motioned to us, “Boys! Boys! Come down quickly, the Japanese have bombed our bases and ships in Hawaii! The news is coming in over the radio! Hurry! Hurry down! And Edward, you get in the house this minute, you boys run home to your parents! This is very serious. We are probably now at war!” Screaming, “WAR, WAR, WAR,” the Chinaberry commandos scattered in all directions.

When I ran into the house, the family was gathered around the big mahogany cabinet radio that dominated a corner of the living room. The strange shinning “green-eye” on the Zenith dial had always intrigued me, seemingly watching my every move. As I entered the room, the eye now even more sinister, followed me as I dropped to the parlor rug to listen to the news and play with my metal pursuit plane. Was the green thing on the radio dial a special spy-device? Had some German or Japanese agent seeking information on our secret Eagles organization planted it?

I made several strafing passes at the evil eye with my trusty fighter. With wet puckered lips I sprayed the radio with, “rata-tat-tat, rata-tat-tat.” This immediately irritated the elders and I was shushed with the famous Granny chop to the back of the head. This brought my strafing runs to a halt, immediately grounding my aircraft. At this point, let me dispel an ancient belief, “Judo” did not originate in the Orient. My dear sweet grandmother developed the moves as a tool to gain the attention of her obedient, loving and well mannered grandson!

I sat silently watching the adults, who in stunned disbelief rocked nervously or paced about the room as fragmented news accounts of the carnage came over the air. At times, in unison they would lean in toward the radio as static flared or the reception faded in an effort to hear every word that was broadcast on that infamous Sunday. It was a day that would forever change an entire nation and the world.

As evening turned to night, I fell asleep on the oval rug in front of the radio still clutching the toy plane I had so gallantly flown against the evil and cowardly Japanese. As I lay in fretful slumber, the green-eye, static, news reports, grandmother's squeaky rocker and boyish perceived images of the horrors of Pearl Harbor reverberated through my youthful dreams; my prized Red Ryder air-rifle and Woolworth tin helmet lay close by my side.

Commander Ed Bookhardt, US Navy, Retired is a former SeaBee with 30+ years active Navy service who worked his way up through the ranks from Seaman Recruit to CDR.            He writes good stories.

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