I am a product of World War II, an early baby boomer. My father was wounded on Okinawa, and I was always aware of his status as a veteran of the war. The war certainly played a role in shaping me.
The summer I was twelve, I was marooned in bed for a week with scarlet fever. I can still remember how bored I was. My father bought me something to read. I remember him handing me a paperback book with a photo of the burning USS Arizona emblazoned on the cover. The photo was a red-orange color. The title read Day of Infamy, and the author was identified as Walter J. Lord.
I devoured the book, the first paperback edition. It was unique, the first narrative history I had ever read that focused on the experiences of individual participants of all ranks and stations, the first built almost entirely from short vignettes drawn from one-on-one contact between the author and people who had lived the events.
By that time in my young life, I had taught myself to type, and I had been experimenting with writing. I had not focused on a topic, but I had heard the call.
As Lord’s unique style of storytelling unfolded, I became more enamored of the presentation. At some point, halfway through the book, I had my Eureka moment: This is what I want to do with my life. This is what I wanted to write, and this is how I wanted to write it.
It took me three years to get enough motivation and confidence to put my desire to work. In that time, at the rate of at least a book a week, I read nothing except World War II history. That three-year build-up coincided with the golden age of World War II history; there were, if anything, too many new books to read, they were pouring out weekly. I felt jealousy toward adult writers who were hogging all the good topics, so much so that began to write about the Guadalcanal campaign at the end of the summer of 1961, fifty years ago. I was fifteen.
It was Walter Lord and Day of Infamy that inspired me. Though much has been learned about Pearl Harbor since Lord wrote his seminal work on the topic, Day of Infamy remains the best conceived and best told of the many books on the topic.
I took it on myself to track down Walter Lord’s address, and I wrote to thank him for inspiring me. The occasion was the publication of my first hardcover book, Chosin, which was released in mid 1981. I still have his gracious response, written in January 1982. It is among my most prized possessions.
“Dear Mr. Hammel, It’s a letter like yours that makes it all seem worthwhile! In return, the best I can wish you is that somewhere, at this moment, there’s a twelve-year-old poring over your Chosin, and deciding that he, too, will join the ranks of writers who struggle to make history readable. Thank you so much.”
My old paperback copy of Day of Infamy went where I went until it finally gave up the ghost and died of brittle paper disease a decade ago. I bought the oldest used copy I could find to replace it–oddly enough from the January 1982 printing–but it’s not the same.
Walter Lord died in 2002, at the end of a long fight with Parkinson’s disease. His excellent books live on in print, and he and his inspiring Day of Infamy live on in my work.
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Read an excerpt from Walter Lord’s Day of Infamy.