PUTNAM VALLEY, N.Y. -- Seventy-five years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, author Craig Nelson’s new book brings new information to perhaps the darkest day in United States military history.
On Saturday, Nelson comes to Putnam Valley Library to discuss his book, “Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness,” at 10 a.m. The free talk is sponsored by the Putnam Valley Historical Society.
Wednesday marks the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The surprise assault on the U.S. Navy fleet near Honolulu in Hawaii killed 2,403 American soldiers and wounded 1,178. There were also 68 civilian casualties, and the assault sunk six U.S. ships and destroyed 188 U.S. aircraft.
Nelson, a New York City author, has written numerous books, including Rocket Men in 2009, about the first men to land on the moon. His book on Pearl Harbor took five years to write with a team of 12 writers and more than one million pages of research. Nelson and his team read diaries, rooted through 103 volumes of documents in Japan and spoke with survivors in their voluminous research.
“The attack was historic,’’ Nelson said. “But the way the United States responded was why I wanted to write this. It marked the birth of our superior military, intelligence agencies and foreign aid to allies. It forced us to be the No. 1 super power in the world. Because of that tragedy, it forced us to grow up and become leaders on the world stage.”
Nelson’s book follows moment by moment, the sailors, soldiers, pilots, admirals, generals, emperor, and president as they engineer, fight, and react to the attack. He provides a blow-by-blow account from both the Japanese and American perspectives.
Nelson said he and his team tried to interview many of the nearly 2,000 survivors of the attack who are still alive. He also found eyewitnesses whose stories had not been told. “We found a group of Navy wives and children who were in the middle of Ford Island (site of the attack),’’ Nelson said. “We get to hear from girls who were 12, 14 and 16-years old at the time and how they witnessed Pearl Harbor. There is one girl, who was 6 years old who lived out in the countryside. One the bombs from a Japanese plane set their house on fire, and the father made the family hide in the sugar cane fields. The girl thought it was exciting until she realized her dog died. There’s a lot of very moving stories just like that.”
The stories of people centered around the invasion are the essence of Nelson’s work. “We tend to get caught up in the statistics, and we get hypnotized by the 2,403 who died and all the other numbers. But when you ignore the statistics, and go find the individual stories, you get this unbelievable human drama you’ll never forget,'' Nelson said.
Nelson said the book presented several challenges, including the lack of transparency from the Japanese government. “It was difficult to get the truth in Japan,’’ he said. “They don’t do investigative history like we do. There were also some first-person accounts from people that made it sound like a fraternity party, and they missed out on how gruesome it was. It’s important for people to know how horrible war is.”
Even an experienced author such as Nelson fought emotions as he wrote the book. “It was hard,’’ he said. “There are certain stories that still make me tear up. It’s the positive stories that bring me up. There are stories of redemption, and some of those were truly inspiring.”
As times marches on, the lessons learned at Pearl Harbor and sacrifices made by the soldiers are easily forgotten. Nelson hopes Americans never forget the day that then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt said was a “day that will live in infamy.”
“To understand the triumph, you have to understand the tragedy,’’ Nelson said. “It really diminishes what they accomplished by not knowing the details. It’s something that we should never, ever forget.”