In the last few years, Pearl Harbor Day has taken on increased significance to me personally, not just because my father and many of my uncles served in the armed forces during World War II, but also because most of the veterans of that war that I grew up knowing have passed from the scene. It was an extraordinary time: rendered more so by the fact that Pearl Harbor and the events that followed are as historically removed from the experiences of the present generation as the trauma of the Civil War was from those of my father's generation. That being said, I now view this day as a perfect excuse to invite my father and those of his surviving friends who lived through the often uncertain years of World War II to reminisce about their friends and experiences. Some of their stories I have heard over and over again, but some are surprisingly fresh and unexpected; this is why it strikes me as particularly poignant that before too much longer virtually all of these recollections — some funny, some touching, and some sad — will, like those who currently share them, be gone forever.

A Long Time Ago, on a Sunny Morning in Hawaii ...

Mrs. Beard lays a wreath on Pearl Harbor Day
at the anchor of the USS Arizona
At 07:40 on Sunday, 7 December 1941, a mixed-force of Japanese carrier aircraft composed of 45 fighters, 54 dive bombers, 40 torpedo bombers, and 50 horizontal bombers appeared in the sky over the island of Oahu, part of the then American territory of the Hawaiian Islands. This was the first wave of a devastating surprise aerial attack on the American naval and air forces in and around the important American naval base at Pearl Harbor. Fifty minutes later, a second wave of Japanese carrier-based aircraft struck the island again in a follow-up raid. The effects of this surprise air raid, considering its short duration, were devastating.

As a direct result of these two Japanese attacks, eighteen U.S. ships including seven battleships were either sunk or so badly damaged that they would be out of action for months. In addition, of the nearly 400 military aircraft on the island, 188 were destroyed, and 159 were damaged. Total American casualties were 3,581, of which 2,403 were killed. The pillars of black smoke billowing up from the burning ships and airfields at Pearl Harbor after the Japanese air strikes bore witness to the stark fact that, although no formal declaration had yet been made by either nation, the United States and the Empire of Japan were now at war.

Remembering the "Day of Infamy" Seventy Years After

Pearl Harbor damaged battleships
Arizona Tennessee and West Virginia
Today is the Seventieth Anniversary of the Japanese carrier-based attack on Pearl Harbor. And although the bombing of the American Pacific Fleet and the airfields and other military installations in Hawaii — at least for the generation of Americans who lived through the harrowing and tumultuous events that followed December, 1941 — long held a special place in their collective memory. Today its historical significance, as the single galvanic event that catapulted a neutral and  predominantly isolationist American citizenry into World War II, has largely faded from the popular consciousness. Time marches on, and three and half generations have passed since the first surprised American sailors — on a balmy Sunday morning long ago — looked skyward to see neat formations of unidentified dots high above their heads suddenly grow larger as the dots turned into enemy aircraft that swooped down again and again to strike the war ships lying at anchor on "Battleship Row". The ships themselves were helpless in the face of the enemy attacks: tied up in their respective berths, with their boilers banked, they could neither maneuver nor fight. The outcome of this uneven engagement, when it was over, was predictable, if amazing: a few hundred enemy planes — launched from aircraft carriers far out to sea — had succeeded in inflicting the worst defeat on an American naval force that the US Navy had ever suffered in all of its long and illustrious history.

USS Arizona Pearl Harbor
Valor in the Pacific National Memorial
In a very real sense, 7 December 1941, marked a major historical turning point for the United States because that date signaled the precise moment in time when a war that had already been raging in Europe for more than two years — suddenly took a circuitous and unexpected Pacific detour — and finally found its way to America's shores. Within a few days of the Pearl Harbor Raid, Adolph Hitler joined with his "Honorary Aryan" allies, the Empire of Japan, in its war against the hitherto neutral America. The United States, its people, and its institutions — spurred by this sudden, unexpected, but existential "two-ocean" war — embarked on a national project that, by the conflict's end in 1945, would leave the country transformed in virtually every way imaginable. As a direct result of the war, vast numbers of people would permanently relocate, sometimes moving great distances; new technologies, whole new industries, and breakthrough medicines and dramatic new medical therapies would be developed; women would enter the labor force as never before; and a generation of young veterans, who — before the war would never have considered continuing their educations past high school — would use the GI Bill for a college education; and finally, the United States, its territory largely untouched by the devastation that laid waste to much of Europe and Asia, would emerge from the war — thanks to its unrivalled industrial and agricultural productivity — as the dominant economic power in the post-war world. But all of the changes that ultimately resulted from America's entry into the war can really be seen as epilogue. In purely historical terms, the story of the United States both during and after World War II, like any narrative, must, along with its ending, also have a beginning. And when it comes to the story of America's participation in its "two ocean war", everything begins with the attack on Pearl Harbor: there, in the space of a few shattering minutes, the arc of the country's destiny changed forever; and, for better or for worse, the United States and its people were, after December 7, 1941, both set upon a path that would guarantee that neither of them would ever again be the same.

U.S. Marines landing on Guadacanal
Yet, as important as the Pearl Harbor attack was to all Americans at the time, it was actually only one of a number of devastating blows that were struck, during the last month of 1941, and the first part of 1942, by the armed forces of the Empire of Japan against US, British, Australian, and Dutch military forces and installations throughout the Central and Western Pacific. In surprisingly short order, Hong Kong, Singapore, Burma, the Phillipine Islands, and the Dutch East Indies would fall, one after another. Before it was over, it would take the Allies four gruelling years to wrest the recent Japanese conquests away from the hands of a tenacious and determined enemy. Americans and their allies would battle the forces of Imperial Japan in the air and on the sea, and — in one bloody action after another — fight their resolute enemy for the control of island strongholds with hitherto unfamiliar names such as Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. And only a terrible, but necessary atomic "epiphany" would finally bring a merciful, if long overdue, end to the carnage on both sides.

Pearl Harbor veterans share experiences at
Wesley Bolin Plaza remembrance, Phoenix Arizona 2009
Of course, 1941 was a long time ago, and even the "Baby Boomers" who were born in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War are now, like me, sliding inexorably into the dotage that comes with old age. More important, of course, is the fact that every day, a large number of the veterans of that long ago conflict pass permanently from the scene. This, in a very real sense, is a major loss to us all because, with their passing, a wealth of irreplaceable knowledge about that unique period in American history go with them. For this reason, I urge my readers to take the opportunity offered by Pearl Harbor Day to ask those who actually lived through the war years to share their thoughts and experiences from that long ago time. Before too much longer, those memories and those who harbor them will all be gone.


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