It is 1941 and fourteen-year-old Adam Pelko and his family have recently moved to Hawaii. Adam's father is a lieutenant in the United States Navy, assigned to the USS Arizona.
Adam has a little trouble making friends at his new school. Before, he'd always gone to school with kids like himself, who had fathers in the military. In Hawaii, he's going to school with civilians. As his father reminds Adam, he might be the one wearing the uniform, but the whole family is in the Navy... Adam does make a connection with a Japanese American boy named Davi.
One day in early December, Adam runs into Davi while he is out riding his bike. Davi invites him to join his team in a game of "coconut ball"; the other team - of native Hawaiian boys - has five players, but Davi's team only has four. Adam knows one of the Hawaiian boys, Martin, from school, too. Adam watches the clock and starts to head home, so he'll be back by 1800, per his father's orders. Davi goes along with him. On the way home, Adam doesn't notice a pothole and rides his bike into the hole, breaking the bike. Davi convinces him to bring it to his house - his dad can fix anything. Adam will be late getting home either way, but if he goes with Davi, at least he won't be coming home with a broken bicycle. Mr. Mori fixes it, but won't accept any payment for it. While at Davi's house, Adam sees a picture of Hirohito on the wall. Davi explains that his parents, born in Japan, are issei, but he, "born here", is nisei, and is "One hundred percent American." Before Adam goes home, Davi invites him to go fishing with him, to meet at six o'clock the next morning.
When Adam gets home and explains why he was late, his father tells him he cannot be friends with Davi. Lt. Emory Pelko understands war is coming with Japan, and that while it was okay to have a Japanese nanny or gardener, it was not okay to have Japanese friends. Then, Adam goes with his parents to the movies while his little sister, Bea, stays home with Koniko, the nanny. When they return home, Emory has a message; he calls the base and finds out that he is needed to cover for the duty officer, who has a family emergency. He tells his wife he should be home by Sunday afternoon...
Adam decided not to tell his parents about his invitation to go fishing. He doesn't want to have to tell Davi that he's not allowed to be friends. When Davi and Martin show up a little late, Adam can't bring himself to say they can't be friends, and they head off to go fish. Davi leads them through a fence onto the naval base. Adam isn't sure about fishing in Pearl Harbor. But, he follows Davi and Martin through the fence anyway, while thinking about what his father had said the night before: "What you do reflects on your family;" but he decides that he wouldn't ruin his father's career by fishing.
They can see all the ships along Ford Island. Adam identifies the ships for his new friends and tells a little bit of what he knows about them: how many guns, how big they are, how many sailors on the crew. They find a rowboat along the shore and decide the fishing would be better if they took it out into the harbor than if they stayed on the pier.
Once they had rowed out into the harbor a bit, they can hear the bugle calling reveille and the ship bands playing The Star-Spangled Banner. Adam then worries that his father might see him in the little boat out in the harbor from the Arizona, and that it might be better if they moved elsewhere.
Just then, a group of planes flies overheard, some "coming in low over the water". At first, Adam thinks it must be some sort of exercise, a war game. But then, he also realizes that those planes don't have American markings, that they appeared to be Japanese. There is an explosion on Ford Island. It's almost like the news reels before the movies. It doesn't take Adam long to realize this is all very real. However, Davi doesn't seem to notice that the planes are not American, and is standing up in the boat, cheering. Adam gets angry and attacks him. Martin breaks them up, and they start rowing for the shore:
They rowed hard, away from the battleships and the bombs. Water sprayed over them. The rowboat pitched one way and then the other. Then, before his eyes, the Arizona lifted up out of the water. That enormous battleship bounced up in the air like a rubber ball and split apart. Fire burst out of the ship. A geyser of water shot into the air and came crashing down. Adam was almost thrown out of the rowboat. He clung to the seat as it swung around. He saw blue skies and the glittering city. The boat swung back again, and he saw black clouds, and the Arizona, his father's ship, sinking beneath the water. (p. 45)
Everything happened at once. The plane...bullets darting across the water...screams...the boat shooting up into the sky.
Adam hung in the air. He saw the red circle on the fuselage, he saw the gunner in his black helmet, and below him he saw the empty rowboat. Then he was in the water, down under the water. Water in his nose and in his throat. He came up next to the boat - it was almost on top of him. He clung to the side, choking and spitting.
The boat rode up and down with the waves, and he hung there, staring at the ragged row of holes along one side. They were so regular they could have been made by a sewing machine needle.
Something awful had happened. The sky was black where the Arizona had been. "My god, my god, oh, my god." He clung to the side of the boat thinking, It's Sunday morning, and we were fishing.
Suddenly there was silence. He could hear the wind. The planes had cleared form the sky. Our side is coming, he thought, and he pulled himself half out of the water and looked around for Martin and Davi. He was afraid. He wanted to see them, and when he didn't, he didn't let himself think what he was thinking - that they were dead.
"Davi," he called. "Martin! Davi!" His stomach clenched. "Martin...Davi..."
He got in the boat. His back was burning, and when he touched it, there was blood on his hand. Had he been shot? He didn't know. Maybe a bullet had grazed him.
"Davi!" he shouted. "Martin!" He stood up. In the distance he saw something bobbing up and down in the water, maybe a piece of driftwood. Then an arm came out of the water and he saw Davi and, beside him, Martin.(pp.46-47)
With one oar, Adam rows out to Davi and Martin. Davi is okay, but Martin won't get in the boat. Adam then sees Martin has a "splinter the size of a pencil...sticking out of his chest.". Davi and Adam manage to get Martin in the boat and then onto the pier. Luckily, a car drives by and stops, looking to pick up any wounded, but not before some sailor sees Davi and hits him with a pistol, thinking he's "got a Jap". Adam intervenes with the sailor, and Davi and Martin get inside the car, while Adam holds onto the center post while standing on the running board.
Adam falls from the side of the car when an explosion nearly runs it into the harbor. The car keeps going without him, and Adam is alone. He goes back to the rowboat and just sits. Before long, an officer comes and assumes Adam is a sailor. He orders Adam to row. Adam begins to explain, but the officer says "Sailor, shut you mouth. Get this slop bucket moving." He is to head to the West Virginia. Adam speaks again later, trying to ask about his father, Lieutenant Pelko, from the Arizona.
"The Arizona? Take a look," he said furiously. He pointed to where the smoke was thickest. "There, that! That! That's what's left of it, that pile of scrap. The USS Arizona is gone," he said bitterly.
Adam isn't able to get through to anyone that he is just a kid and doesn't really belong there. He is conscripted to help. First, he carries ammo to the guns on the West Virginia - where he see a "colored sailor" (Dorie Miller, from the Author's Note) manning the gun - but also sees "pieces of the ship and pieces of men [rain] down around him. A foot. An arm. He saw everything through a red haze. He ran. He slipped in blood. The launch was still at the foot of the ladder, and he fled the ship." Then helps pull men out of the water, and when one burned sailor's skin comes off in his hands, he vomits. They take the wounded to shore and find out where to take them. Adam and the sailors he is with then get rounded up by a Marine sergeant who wants them cleaned up - they are covered in oil - before taking them to the armory. They are to go to the main gate for security.
Adam decides, with the crowd around the gate, that he should try to sneak away. He can only think of his mother and little sister alone in the house, not knowing where he is. He hitches a ride on a truck near the gate - the driver would like a guard, and Adam still has the rifle he was issued. Luckily, Adam had already known about guns, although he'd never handled a rifle before. He makes it home, and hides the rifle in the bushes before going into the house.
All the neighbors are in the house when he arrives. His mother is relieved to see him, but he won't explain things until he's been able to clean up. He falls asleep before he can talk to his mother. By the time he woke up, all the others had left and he spoke with his mother. He bring the gun into the house, and his mother reminds him to "set the safety".
Adam knows in his heart that his father is dead, but when talking to his mother, until they get official word from the Navy, there is still hope. On Monday, Adam's mother asks him to turn on the radio for the broadcast from the mainland. They hear President Roosevelt's address asking Congress to declare war.
They continue to wait, and try to sort out fact from rumor. Martial law had been declared: no school, no banks, no government offices are open. Adam sleeps on a cot in his mother's room with the gun on the floor under the cot to guard both his mother and his little sister, Bea.
Adam goes to Davi's house. He is okay, but Mr. Mori was taken away by the FBI on suspicion of being a spy. Davi and Adam visit Martin, who almost died, who is still in the hospital.
Adam also tries to get onto the naval base to find something out about his father, but they won't let him on without ID.
Koniko returns after two weeks, now wearing western clothes instead of her kimono.
A telegram arrives at the Pelko house. Mrs. Pelko asks Adam to read it:
THE SECRETARY OF WAR DESIRES ME TO EXPRESS HIS DEEP REGRET THAT YOUR HUSBAND LT EMORY J PELKO HAS BEEN MISSING IN ACTION AT PEARL HARBOR SINCE 7 DECEMBER 41 CONFIRMING LETTER FOLLOWS J A ULIO THE ADJUTANT GENERAL
Adam finds out that all dependent families are to be sent back to the mainland. Adam doesn't want to go. He feels like that would be abandoning his father. But, he has no choice. They leave on a troop ship with other dependent families and lots of the wounded. Adam says goodbye to his father as he drops a lei into the water near Diamond Head... dropping a lei in the water means that you are coming back...
In the Author's Note at the back of the book, there is more of the historical background: how the US didn't think Japan was enough of a military threat and how they were more concerned about sabotage from the Japanese on the islands; how the Japanese navy crossed the Pacific undetected; how they intentional attacked on a Sunday because they knew the fleet would be in port, the tally of the battle: 2,403 American servicemen dead but fewer than 100 Japanese, 5 U.S. battleships sunk and 3 destroyers and 3 light cruisers damaged, 5 Japanese midget submarines and one full-time submarine lost, the Japanese fleet escaped, 164 U.S aircraft destroyed and 29 Japanese planes that did not return to their carriers; how the attack failed in its objective of destroying the Pacific Fleet (although I do note that there is no mention of the fact that the American carriers were at sea at the time of the attack); how "Remember Pearl Harbor" became the rallying cry of the Pacific War; how persons of Japanese origin were interned on the mainland, but not in Hawaii; about how the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, all volunteers of Americans of Japanese Ancestry, fought valiantly in Europe; and how the Arizona was never raised and today serves as a memorial to all those who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
This book isn't for young children. It's recommended for 12 years old and older, but I think it would be suitable for children as young as the fourth grade, or about 10 years old. While the book isn't really gory, it does not shy away from the realities of war. It's not a long book, coming in at 104 pages, including the Author's Note. But, I do think this is a good book for children to make a connection to history through the eyes of a young man. And, with the United States involved in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, if may offer an opening for talking to older children about war without necessarily addressing the current conflict we are engaged in.
I do know that A Boy at War is not the only book by Harry Mazer about Adam Pelko. It is followed by A Boy No More and Heroes Don't Run, which I have not yet read.