Karol NAWROCKI: Two Dates, One War

Two Dates, One War

Photo of Karol NAWROCKI

Karol NAWROCKI

President of the National Remembrance Institute.

Ryc. Fabien Clairefond

other articles by this author

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor from 80 years ago pushed the USA to active involvement in World War II. Poland got engaged in the war two years earlier through the invasion from Germany, and later also from the Soviet Union. The Poles and the Americans fought on the same side in this conflict, and with the same goal: to defend freedom and humanity.

.The first bombs and torpedoes rained down about 8 AM of the local time. A moment later, a powerful explosion destroyed USS “Arizona”, tearing it to pieces. Other major ships were also in flames. The outcome of that Sunday morning on December 7, 1941, was tragic for the Americans: far over two thousand dead, several battleships destroyed, almost two hundred military aircraft lost. The decision-makers at the White House and regular citizens were deeply shocked.

‘The news about the attacks fell upon us like a bomb at Washington,’ as “New York Times” wrote on the next day. At first, the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, deluded himself this was about the Philippines only.  Soon, there was no doubt: the United States were at war against Japan. Four days after the devastating raid on Pearl Harbor, Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Italy declared war on the USA. These were turning points for the entire World War II. The involvement of the powerful American state in the conflict entirely changed the power relations among the parties. Therefore, December 1941 became the beginning of the end of the axis of evil that attempted to rule the world.

The Poles had their Pearl Harbor over two years earlier. Early in the morning on September 1, 1939, German battleship “Schleswig-Holstein” opened fire at Polish military post at Westerplatte, the Free City of Gdańsk. Almost at the same time, Luftwaffe bombarded a vulnerable town of Wieluń, which became a symbol of barbarity comparable with the demolition of the Basque Guernica in 1937. On that September morning, without declaring the war, Wehrmacht attacked at almost the entire length of the border. When the Red Army invaded Poland from the east over two weeks later, the fate of the heroically defended country was doomed. But the war started in Poland was already global at the time, with France and the United Kingdom allying against Germany.

Just as Pearl Harbor has a special place in the American history, Westerplatte and Wieluń are landmarks in the history of Poland. One could say that December 7, 1941, and September 1, 1939, are the two beginnings of the same war: the war in defence of freedom and humanity. Undoubtedly, one can also say that both the Poles and the Americans fought in the war on the good side from the start. This was a just war, according to the definition provided, among others, by St. Augustin.

Polish-American brotherhood in arms has a long tradition. In the 18th century, the Poles, including Tadeusz Kościuszko and Kazimierz Pułaski, engaged in the American War of Independence. When Poland was erased from the maps of Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries, hundreds of thousands of our compatriots emigrated to the USA with the hope for a better life. Almost 300 thousand Americans of Polish origin served in the US Army during the World War I. American volunteers of Polish origin joined the Polish Army in France, also referred to as the Blue Army; its soldiers played an important role in 1919-1920, when Poland defended the freshly recovered independence in the war against the Bolshevik Russia. It should be remembered that also American pilots from the Polish 7th Air Escadrille, the Kościuszko Squadron, fought against the Red Army. The most famous of them was Merian C. Cooper, later Hollywood  producer, scriptwriter and director, co-producer of the famous King Kong.

During World War II, about a million of Americans drafted to the army were of Polish origin. Not surprisingly, their names can be found in the data of all major US Army battles on the Pacific, in North Africa, and Europe.

The youngest victims of Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor include 17-year-old John Stanley Malinowski from USS “Arizona”. The same battleship buried 21-year-old Henry S. Kalinowski, who was there on that day only because he swapped his weekend pass with a friend.

Edward Wozenski could successfully act as one of the protagonists of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. In June 1944, this veteran of war in Africa and Sicily, later general, commanded a company who landed and fiercely fought at the “Omaha” beach in Normandy. Those familiar with John Guillermin’s war drama The Bridge at Remagen should take interest in the biography of Alexander Drabik. As a soldier of 9th Armoured Division, in March 1945, he became famous for conquering the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen, which was of major importance and opened the path to the heart of the Reich for the allies. A great material for a film script can also be formed by the biography of Francis “Gabby” Gabreski, one of the true aces of the US Air Force. During World War II, he shot down almost 30 enemy aircraft, followed by more during later fights in Korea.

American soldiers, including the ones of Polish origin, fought hand in hand at many fronts of World War II with the soldiers of the Polish Army in the West, organised since 1939 outside occupied Poland. They could often see with their own eyes how professional and strong-willed Polish soldiers are. The famous four-star general George S. Patton recorded that Polish troops “present themselves best of all” he had seen, “including British and American.”

.Unfortunately, this effort did not allow Poland to regain sovereignty in 1945. After the defeat of the Reich, Poland long remained within the Soviet sphere of influence. Many Polish soldiers who refused to live in the enslaved homeland settled in the USA. Nowadays, when free Poland and the United States are allies in NATO, we can commemorate such brave people together, just as we will pay tribute together to those killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Karol Nawrocki

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