Woster: Taking strength, unity from the attacks that bind us

The dedication of that World War II memorial came the weekend after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Bill Janklow was governor at the time.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster
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Japanese military forces attacked Pearl Harbor 81 years ago this Dec. 7, two years before I was born.

One way or another, I have been aware of that “date which shall live in infamy’’ for as long as I have been conscious of wars, battles and fighting soldiers, sailors and fliers. That date-in-infamy phrase by President Franklin D. Roosevelt — and all it represented in terms of fighting, death, injury and loss — feels like something I have never not known about.

I can’t pinpoint when I first learned of Pearl Harbor. I would guess it was early grade school. The Korean conflict was ending then. World War II remained more current events than history. I recall teachers in those early grades who made a point to talk about Pearl Harbor history each year in early December. According to one source I read, 21 U.S. ships were sunk or damaged in the attack, 188 aircraft were destroyed and 2,403 people were killed.

I happened upon this quote attributed to a survivor of the attack: “It seems inconceivable that what I saw could actually happen. My whole world was on fire.’’ What that sailor saw, and what the other survivors of the attack saw, had to have been something that would never be erased from their memories, no matter how long they lived.

And some of those survivors lived a good, long while. I remember the group of South Dakota survivors of Pearl Harbor who rode together through the streets of Pierre in a parade in September of 2001. The parade was part of the unveiling of a sculpture dedicated to the women and men who served during World War II. Those survivors of Pearl Harbor were old, 80 years old or more by that time, most of them. Time had taken a toll, it was clear. But they rode through the crowd as a unit, a group of humans who had experienced and survived things most of us will never quite understand. Such shared experiences create a bond unlike any other, combat veterans have told me.


The dedication of that World War II memorial came the weekend after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Bill Janklow was governor at the time. Members of his staff and hundreds of volunteers had been planning the WWII dedication for months. Asked if he would consider postponing the dedication, Janklow said he would not. “These (World War II veterans) never postponed a thing in their lives,’’ he said. The dedication took place on schedule.

Some estimates said as many as 20,000 to 25,000 people came to Pierre for the dedication weekend. In some ways the weekend itself was a show of unity, a way for a frightened and shocked people to gather to share their fears and to take strength from each other in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

Although I grew up knowing about the events of Pearl Harbor, I’m not sure that awareness continued through succeeding generations. Over time, I suppose, even the worst of things fades a bit from consciousness, especially for those of us who really didn’t experience the event. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, brought Pearl Harbor back into general public discussion. It was as though, in the years between 1941 and 2001, no other such deadly, murderous event had happened to make a legitimate comparison. Other wars brought their own tragedies, of course. But Pearl Harbor and 9/11 share the enormity of having been deadly, surprise attacks on American soil.

In my reading, I found an article that said the Pearl Harbor attack ended American isolationism, led to a period of national unity, propelled the United States into World War II and became the catalyst for our nation’s status as a superpower.

The terrorist attacks drew people together, too, for security and solace. We remembered for a time the things that bind us instead of the things that divide us. Too soon, that unity began to fail.

Perhaps a renewed focus on Dec. 7, 1941, and Sept. 11, 2001, would reawaken the spirit of unity in this country. I would like to think so.

Opinion by Terry Woster
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