Alfred Shehab was a young man living in New York when President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke to the nation in December of 1941.
Japanese planes had struck Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The war that had already been raging in Europe and East Asia had hit home.
“I guess the first reaction was ‘this is unbelievable,’ ” said Shehab in an interview from his home on Hillcrest Drive in Odenton. “We were getting reports of the damage, and how the [Japanese] were able to pull that off.”
Moved by Roosevelt's radio address, Shehab, then 21, walked down to Whitehall Street and enlisted in the Army, along with just about every able-bodied man he knew.
For Shehab, the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941 changed his focus, as he had originally planned to join the Free France movement in Europe. Now, he’d be fighting for his own country.
The attack was also a turning point in the American attitude toward the war. No longer was the conflict overseas, something that could be ignored.
“At my age, we weren’t paying attention to anything,” Shehab said. “I don’t even think we talked about that stuff. We talked about girls."
After Pearl Harbor, he recalled an eagerness on the part of everyone he knew to defeat the Axis powers.
"The reaction of the average American was incredible," he said.
Shehab spent the early part of the war stateside, eventually volunteering to travel with the 11th Cavalry Group to Europe, where Allied forces had stormed the beaches at Normandy but were encountering stiff resistance from the German Army as they advanced.
“Once they got beyond the beaches, they were having problems,” he said. “They were losing second lieutenants rather rapidly, so I volunteered and went over.”
Trudging through waist-deep snow, Shehab’s unit caught up with more Allied forces in the Ardennes region of Belgium, where he eventually commanded a platoon during one of the fiercest land battles on record: The Battle of the Bulge, where more than 19,000 American soldiers died.
“The Bulge was unbelievable,” he said. “When the bulge broke, they shelled the hell out of us.”
Allied forces won, and Shehab spent the final months of 1945 as a liberator in Europe, freeing Jews and others from the horrors of concentration camps and meeting up with soldiers who had been taken as prisoners of war.
Shehab paused when he recalled the vision of a skeletal concentration camp victim, who wept in disbelief.
“It’s amazing when you’re looking at something,” he said, “but your brain refuses to accept that one person could do that to another. Germany was supposed to be a civilized, Christian nation. It was unbelievable. They were bones … I don’t know how they even moved.”
Shehab served another two decades in the United States Army, eventually reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel and finishing his service at Fort Meade. He has since been a national and local voice on behalf of veterans, serving as an executive with the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge and with the Military Order of the World Wars.
To him, the Pearl Harbor attack and the events that ensued don’t seem like 70 years ago. He said he remembers vividly the attitude of the nation.
“Pearl Harbor gave us a mission: defeat the enemy,” he said. “The whole country became one, it was unbelievable.”