Imagine a typical December day, a Sunday morning like any other you’ve known, right up to the moment the sky fills with enemy fighter planes and bombers, bullets fly and bombs fall.
Maybe you’re in church, struggling to focus on the minister’s homily. Maybe you’re standing at the stove stirring a skillet of scrambled eggs while bacon sizzles on the next burner. Or maybe you got up early for a run, a round of golf, a workout at the gym or a cup of coffee and the Sunday newspaper in the parlor. Those are all such normal activities, such human things, suddenly blown apart by a surprise attack from nowhere.
From what I’ve read in histories and novels and biographies, those were the conditions in Hawaii on this date, Dec. 7, in 1941 when the Japanese caught the ships and aircraft, the sailors and pilots and soldiers of the United States military off guard in the attack that propelled this nation into World War II. Until that moment, the war had raged half a world away, in Africa, Europe and Russia. American was on the sidelines. The war was in the evening papers and the movie-house newsreels.
I was born two years after the Japanese attack. I grew up knowing that when someone said “Pearl Harbor,’’ they were referring not to a place in the Hawaiian Islands but to Dec. 7, 1941, when death and destruction rained from the skies on a peaceful Sunday morning.
In his message to Congress and to a national radio audience, President Franklin Roosevelt famously called Dec. 7 “a date which will live in infamy.’’ He called the attack sudden and deliberate and said the distance of Hawaii from Japan “makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago.’’
“‘The attack yesterday,’’ Roosevelt said, “has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.’”
When I was younger, Dec. 7 never passed without considerable public comment on the events of Pearl Harbor. As years after the event turned into decades, it seemed to me the enormity of the events faded somewhat from public consciousness. The terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001, not only shook this country out of a sort of complacency but also re-awakened an interest in and understanding of the Pearl Harbor tragedy.
Consider these numbers: The attack killed 2,403 U.S. personnel and destroyed or damaged 19 Navy ships, including eight battleships, according to a website dedicated to Pearl Harbor history. Half of those killed were on the USS Arizona, which remains sunken in Pearl Harbor. In addition, 169 Navy and Army Air Corps planes were destroyed.
The losses could have been even worse, but three Navy aircraft carriers were at sea on maneuvers and escaped. And, for some reason, perhaps low fuel supplies, the Japanese commander decided against launching a planned third wave of aircraft and instead turned back toward home. Had the American carriers been damaged, the war in the Pacific would have been even more difficult to win.
When South Dakota dedicated its Capitol Lake memorial to the men and women of World War II in September of 2001 (just a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks), the parade included survivors of Pearl Harbor. They were few and old, hair gray or gone. Nearly all wore glasses. Many held canes. For me they were one of the most moving moments in a weekend of emotions.
Roosevelt’s speech after the attack included these words: “We will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.’’
Sept. 11, 2001, and so many other violent incidents show that treachery continues to endanger the world. I take comfort in the young women and men still willing to serve as those Pearl Harbor survivors once did. They are the best of us, and all deserve a thought this day.