Grandpa’s Legendary Story

For all of us familiar with U.S. History and our family history, today’s thoughts should be expected. This is the seventy-fourth anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. We all know about Grandpa’s repeated story that he learned of the attack six months earlier when he was passing through Japan on his way home after living in Russia for ten years.

He traveled across the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Railway and then took a Japanese steamer from Vladivostok across the Sea of Japan. When he reached Japan, he boarded a train to Tokyo, and then a bus to Yokohama.

The bus driver got lost, so Grandpa asked to be dropped off at a police station for directions. The legendary story is that when one of the officers at the station learned Grandpa was an American, he warned Grandpa to leave Japan as quickly as possible because the Japanese were going to “boom boom” the United States.

After Grandpa’s ship docked in Honolulu, he went ashore to purchase some newspapers and was approached by a United States Intelligence officer named Sullivan, who was inquiring about troop movements Grandpa may have seen while on the Trans-Siberian. Naturally, Grandpa was anxious to pass on his news, but he never knew if he was taken seriously by Mr. Sullivan.

On the day of the attack, Grandpa had been in the army for one month. He was stationed at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, enrolled in a sixteen week medical training course. The rest of his family—his parents and three sisters—were at a train station in Yaroslavl, which was about 400 miles southeast of the city where they were all living when Grandpa left. The family evacuated in mid-August when their city was attacked by the Germans. The traveled on foot until they were finally able to reach a train.  My grandparents were sixty-three and fifty-five at this time, and my Aunt Nancy was pregnant. At the onset of the journey they encountered heavy rains which made travel on the roads impossible, and then winter set in, with temperatures as low as -40 degrees. I cannot imagine the hardships they endured!

Grandpa’s family had not been in contact with him since he left, so they did not know he had been drafted or if he had even arrived back in New Jersey. How different from our world of instant communication where we become impatient when we cannot reach someone quickly enough!

The question today is whether Grandpa’s story was true. I did a lot of research and learned that reports surface each year on this anniversary stating that President Roosevelt, like Grandpa, was not surprised by the attack. One of the researchers at the National Archives told me he believed the story, telling me that many of the Japanese were aware of the plans. So what do you all think?

Grandpa and Friend on Ship Heading to US from Japan- 1941
Grandpa and Friend on Ship Heading to US from Japan- 1941



Bumping Into History

Throughout his life, Grandpa was always bumping into history, which is why learning about him has helped me learn world history.

I learned about the Great Depression from reading about what it was like living in New Jersey at that time. We all heard his assassination story, so I researched both the man who was assassinated in Leningrad in 1934 and his killer.

His first steps on United States soil after having been away for ten years was on June 22, 1941, which was the day German forces invaded the Soviet Union.  He was finally on his way home. The rest of his family was still located in the USSR, so I learned  that battle was called Operation Barbarossa.

Grandpa’s story never wavered about speaking to a US Intelligence officer that June day, who approached him when he left the ship in Honolulu. That’s the story about Grandpa knowing about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Was it actually possible that he knew?

In 1956, he was visited by the FBI after he refused to speak at the local Lions Club meeting about his experiences living in the Soviet Union.  That was the time when Americans lived in fear of Communists—precipitated by Joseph McCarthy’s own reign of terror and the explosion of the first atomic bomb by the Soviets.  Grandma said his name was Callahan. Here history was literally knocking at his door.

I have tried, and thus far been unsuccessful, in obtaining his FBI file. I once sat next to an FBI agent on an airplane who encouraged me to be persistent, stating that “if the FBI came to your house, and your father had family living in the Soviet Union at that time, then an FBI file does exist.” I tried again this past week through a different agency—the National Archive at George Washington University.

It is not surprising that my parents’ basement was filled with newspapers about historical events such as the assassination of both Kennedy’s, the first walk on the moon, and the resignation of Nixon. Now they are in my attic in a special box, meant for the teacher in the family or anyone who wants to see them.  It was also not surprising that Grandpa died on the anniversary of a date of historical significance—a date when the world changed and a large part of this country also died.

He died on September 11, 2008.  Grandpa was the first person who called and told me to turn on the television that bright sunny day fourteen years ago when I was pulling up weeds around our pool.  I didn’t believe what he was telling me, but I nevertheless followed his instructions and was horrified when I turned on the television to see smoke pouring from those beautiful buildings we had visited and had seen viewed from the hills of Boonton. (Incidentally, my first visit to the Twin Towers was with Grandpa, when his cousin Misha visited from Russia.)

So every year on this date, I reflect back on Grandpa’s difficult life, recall how often he bumped into history, and then sadly remember all those others who lost their lives on that day.