In a letter dated Nov. 30, 1941, one U.S. Army photographer told his parents an attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan was "rather doubtful because they are so small in number compared to the armed forces."
A week later, and with a temporarily crippled Pacific Fleet, our nation entered World War II.
Lambert Modder, then a 19-year-old Navy corpsman stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, spent Dec. 7, 1941, hauling away bodies of those killed in the attack.
This farm boy from Iowa grew up in a hurry.
"If they had fingers, of course we could fingerprint them," said Modder, 84, of his assignment to morgue detail. "We just did what we had to do."
Modder, a Mesa resident, served 3 1 /2 years more in the Pacific.
He has since returned to Pearl Harbor four times, and next year’s 65th anniversary visit will likely be his last.
As president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association’s Arizona chapter, Modder will talk about his experiences — and that Army photographer’s confident letter — at a memorial service today in Phoenix.
He said about 90 survivors live in the state, with roughly 6,000 left nationwide.
Many of the association’s members speak to students at local schools about Pearl Harbor and its place in history. Scottsdale resident Gilbert Bartell, 87, who served with the Navy aboard the USS Tennessee, said he is always impressed by kids’ curiosity.
"A lot of them ask pretty intelligent questions," he said. "A lot of them will say, ‘Why did we really get into the war?’ There’s quite a bit of interest.’’
Bartell remembers deafening explosions before looking up at the underbelly of a plane bearing Japan’s rising sun insignia. He knew it was war, right then and there — burning oil covered the harbor, while just the top deck of the doomed USS Arizona stood above water.
Days later, he set out to sea.
The attacks shook the nation much like Sept. 11, 2001, he said. But, unfortunately, the name Pearl Harbor does not sound familiar to all.
Modder’s van sports a license plate that commemorates his status as a Pearl Harbor survivor. He recalled one man who commented on the plate at a local grocery store parking lot. Apparently, this American in his mid-30s wondered where the harbor was — and if it had good fishing.
"I said, ‘You son of a gun. Don’t you know what Pearl Harbor is all about?’ ’’ Modder said.
"Pearl Harbor was the turnaround of this country. History will prove that.’’