Where were you at 7:55 AM this morning? I was enjoying my morning protein shake and catching up on the news. I’m sure many of you were just waking up, looking forward to that first cup of coffee. The more energetic were returning from a morning run, or bike ride, or swim. MW (Mr. Wonderful) was getting ready to head outside and cut down some trees. I bet there were more than a few trying to get their Christmas shopping lists together or working on cards that need to get in the mail soon. Some were headed to or already hard at work earning a living.
On this date seventy-nine years ago, on the beautiful island of Oahu, all of those things were probably happening, too. (Well, maybe not the protein shake, because I’m not certain they had been invented yet.) Since it was Sunday morning, many may have been getting the kids dressed for an early church service where the preacher/priest would begin talking about the Christmas story. At the naval base just northwest of Honolulu, a beautiful, clear day had dawned. Imagine that you were standing out on the front lawn, looking east at the sun rising over Diamond Head. Now turn around.
The first wave of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor appeared over the base at 8:55 AM. On the horizon were nearly 200 aircraft loaded for bear with bombs, torpedos, and machine gun shells. The noise, at first just the buzz of engines that you can always hear near an airfield, quickly became the unsettling sound of diving planes and ear-splitting explosions. Within 15 minutes, nearby airfields were also under attack. The air filled with smoke and the acrid smell of black powder and burning oil. People were running in all directions, some just trying to escape the chaos. Many, though, were running into the fray. While most of our planes were destroyed on the ground and runways were filled with craters, six airmen managed to take off and join the fight during the first assault. Sailors worked hard to fend off the attack with anti-aircraft guns from the decks of the ships in the harbor. Doctors and nurses ran in to help the wounded. Close your eyes and try to imagine it. I’m sure that whatever you and I see, the reality was a hundred times worse.
In the first 30 minutes of the attack, we lost most of our battleships. The USS Arizona blew up. The USS West Virginia, USS California, and USS Utah all sank. The USS Oklahoma rolled over. Bodies were in the water. Men were swimming for shore, doing their best to avoid being hit by machine gun fire. Then, after 55 minutes of chaos and trying to figure out what the hell was happening, the SECOND. WAVE. ARRIVED. In the next few minutes, the devastation was complete, and by a little past 9:00 AM, the Japanese turned to head for home.
Many books and historians have covered the missed signs of the impending attack, and there were a lot of mistakes. I’m no military strategist, but when we visited Pearl a couple of years ago, I was stunned that they would have ALL of the ships crammed in that little harbor together…ever. (It was an anti-sabotage move, and thankfully, three carriers were otherwise deployed.) However, for me the mistakes are eclipsed by the stories of the people. Of the unbelievable courage shown in the face of utter devastation. Of those who knew they had most likely lost every one of their buddies and still managed to fight. Of those who manned the guns on sinking ships. Of those who, in the midst of the explosions and live fire, worked desperately on the wounded.
The next day, President Roosevelt gave his famous speech that began: “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” Overnight, we joined the war, and many of the survivors who suffered in the devastation of Pearl Harbor were clamoring to get into the fight. We live in a time when “hero” is bandied about so freely that its meaning has been watered down. We really need to come up with a new word, because these folks are so much more.
At the end of the movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!“, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto says, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” While that quote is a beautiful piece of movie magic, it is not untrue. The attack on Pearl Harbor stoked the forge that made the iron that become the greatest generation. That is worth honoring on this National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.