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Poem of the Week - December 7th, 2020 - 'The Fateful Day' by Fremont Sawade

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

In honor of the 79th anniversary of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, this week’s ‘Poem of the Week’ comes courtesy of a man who witnessed the attack—‘The Fateful Day’ by Fremont Sawade.

Sawade, a San Diego, California native who was twenty-one and assigned to an Army anti-aircraft regiment at the time of the attack, wrote the poem two days after he witnessed the attack first-hand at Pearl Harbor. He had been on liberty eating breakfast in Honolulu that morning when the attack began, but when the planes started flying overhead and the sound of bombs echoed across the landscape, he raced back across town with the help of a local cab driver to try to join in what little resistance the men could offer against the Japanese. He would later tell an interviewer that the attack was so unexpected that ‘[my] unit didn’t even have ammunition for [our] big guns’ in order to fire back at the dive-bombing Japanese Zero fighter planes.

Two days later, with the wreckage of the Pacific Fleet still smoldering in the harbor and the scent of burnt rubber and oil hanging in the air, Sawade sat down at a desk in an empty room at Hickam Field near Pearl Harbor and poured his heart out onto the page. He kept the poem to himself for the most part after he had finished it, folding it up and putting it in his pocket, and his unit was soon shipped out to Fiji as the War in the Pacific started.

He was discharged after the war ended, and he moved back to San Diego to start a life with his wife. He worked a variety of jobs over the years, including as a building inspector for the nearby city of El Cajon for a decade, but he never again put pen to paper and wrote another poem. Asked about it decades later, he said he didn’t feel the need for it. He spoke of the anger and sadness and streaks of vengeance that coursed through him in the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and he said he never felt such emotion again.

He kept the poem to himself mostly over the years, showing a few military friends and publishing it in various military newsletters, but it never saw the light of day with a large audience until his son-in-law, Rod Bankhead, a military veteran himself who had fought in Vietnam, got a hold of it one day. Impressed with what his father-in-law had written, Bankhead wrote to the Smithsonian asking if they would like it to display in the museum as an important ‘first-hand-account-via-art’ item representing the emotions of men who had witnessed the attack first hand. The Smithsonian, in turn, pointed him in the direction of the National WWII Museum in New Orleans, and the museum is now in possession of a wooden plaque that has the poem engraved on it. Various classrooms, many of them at the middle school level, have since used the poem as a way to explore what occurred during the attack and its aftermath on victims’ psyches, and, before Sawade died in 2016 of congestive heart failure at the age of 95, he stated that the new life the poem had taken on was one of his proudest achievements.

The poem itself is written in a rather simple style—it contains many rhyming couplets (though not all lines rhyme), and the rhymes help the poem flow very naturally. Sawade uses simple language, letting images created from his words do the work for the bulk of the poem in terms of emotional impact, and the emotional rawness of some parts of the poem are a peek into the mindset of the survivors from the attack and the feelings of the anger felt afterwards by American service members and civilians who saw the carnage first-hand.

While anger is prevalent throughout most of the poem, the end of it almost like a cry to battle and a loud call-to-arms for vengeance against the Japanese, there are also periods of both unbridled joy—especially at the beginning, where Sawade paints a picture of paradisiacal ambivalence to the world because of the beautiful surroundings—and devastating sadness and loss, specifically contained in lines such as those talking about men being killed so suddenly that they didn’t even have time to wake up from their Sunday morning slumber to realize what was going on.

At the end of the day, the poem is a powerful piece of work written in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and, 79 years after the attack caught the world off guard and launched the United States into WWII, it is a fitting remembrance of both survivors and those who perished that day, an artful reticulation of an event that forever altered the course of world history.


'The Fateful Day’

‘Twas the day before that fateful day,

December Sixth I think they say.

When leave trucks passed Pearl Harbor clear

The service men perched in the rear.

No thought gave they, of things to come.

For them, that day, all work was done.

In waters quiet of Pearl Harbor Bay,

The ships serene, at anchor lay.

Nor did we give the slightest thought

Of treacherous deeds by the [enemy] lot.

Those men whose very acts of treason,

Are done with neither rhyme nor reason.

For if we knew what was in store

We ne’re would leave that day before.

For fun and drink to forget the war

Of Britain, Europe, and Singapore.

For all of us there was no fear

This time of peace and Christmas cheer.

Forget the axiom, might is right,

Guardians of Peace, were we that night.

We passed the sailors in cabs galore,

Those men in white who came ashore.

But some will ne’re be seen again,

In care-free fun, those sailor men.

The Sabbath Day dawned bright and clear,

A brand of fire ore the lofty spear,

Of Diamond Head, Hawaii’s own.

A picture itself that can’t be shown,

Unless observed with naked eye,

That makes one look, and stop, and sigh.

What more could lowly humans ask

To start upon their daily task.

The men asleep in barracks late,

Knew no war, that morn at eight.

The planes on fields, their motors cold,

Like sheep asleep among the fold.

The ships at anchor with turbines stilled,

Their crews below in hammocks filled.

And faint, as tho it were a dream,

A sound steels on upon this scene.

A drone of many red tipped things,

The Rising Sun upon their wings.

Those who saw would not believe,

And those that heard could not conceive.

A single shocking, thundering roar,

Followed by another and many more.

To rob the sleep from weary eyes,

Or close forever those that died.

A hot machine gun’s chattering rattle,

Mowed men down like herds of cattle.

A bomb destroys an air plane hangar,

The planes within will fly no more.

Bombs explode upon a ship,

Blasting men into the deep,

To sink without the slightest thought

Of what brought on this hell they caught.

What seems like years, the horrible remains,

Blasting men and ships and planes.

And just as quick as they had come,

Away they went, their foul deeds done.

To leave the burning wreckage here,

The scorching hulks of dead ships there.

And blasted forms of dying men,

Alive in hell, to die again.

At night the skies were all but clear,

The rosy glow of a white hot bier,

Showed on clouds the havoc wrought,

And greedy flames the men still fought.

But from the ruins arose this cry,

That night from those who did not die,

“Beware Japan we’ll take eleven,

For every death of December Seven.”

And from that day there has arisen,

A cry for vengeance, in storms they’re driven.

This fateful day among the ages,

Shall stand out red in Hist’rys pages.

Those men whom homefolk held so dear,

Will be avenged, have no fear.

And if their lives they gave in vain,

Pray, I too, may not remain.

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