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December 7, 1941

“December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy…no matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.” – President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, December 8, 1941

Today is the seventy-first anniversary of the Japanese bombing of the United States Naval Station at Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii.

Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii, December 7, 1941, photo taken from a Japanese attack plane.

At 7:48 a.m. Hawaiian Time (12:48 p.m. Eastern, 3:18 a.m. December 8 Japanese time) the first wave of 353 Japanese bombers, fighters and torpedo planes attacked the base. Ninety minutes later, 2,402 Americans were dead, 1,282 were wounded, four battleships were sunk, four more were damaged, three cruisers, three destroyers, one anti-aircraft training ship and one minelayer were damaged; 188 aircraft were destroyed.

The U.S.S. Arizona, December 7, 1941

The Japanese admiral in charge of the operation had wanted Japan to formally declare war on the United States before the attack. The mutual declarations occurred right after it. On December 11, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. The United States had ostensibly remained neutral in the Second Sino-Japanese War which began on July 7, 1937, when Japan invaded China, and the war in Europe that had been going on since September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. Pearl Harbor allowed us to overtly enter both conflicts.

The U.S.S. Arizona today

The Great Depression and World War II shaped my parents’ generation in ways it is hard to explain to those who came after. They had lived through or witnessed extreme poverty that reached out far beyond the centuries-old slums that had confined that hard life of subsistence and survival. The had fought two great enemies dedicated to world domination. Our entire nation was dedicated to the war effort. There was not a single family that was not impacted in some way, just as there was not a single person alive and cognizant on that day who could not tell you exactly when and how he/she had heard the news. Before the war was over, they lost the President who had guided the nation for twelve years, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the nation’s voice and ultimate father-figure, the man who would make it all right again.

They came home to one of the few industrialized nations on earth that had not been bombed into the 17th century, and agreed as our Presidents and lawmakers took responsibility for helping our allies and our enemies recover from the devastation of bombing and displaced persons.

My generation grew up on a sanitized version of war. Our parents did not want us to know what they had lived through. But the war was never really far from them or us. The two-volume, coffee-table sized Life Magazine pictorial history of the war was on my parents’ bookshelves, along with most of the major books about the war, those by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, William Shirer, Cornelius Ryan, so many others. The war was something they wanted to forget, but could never get away from. And so many movies and television shows, it’s hard to remember them all. But my generation would be adults before those movies and television shows even approached reality.

My Uncle Joe was at Normandy Beach, but my Aunt Lydia and Uncle Dennis didn’t arrive at Pearl until a year after the attack. Uncle Eddie joined the Navy and served in the Pacific. My father joined the Army Air Corps, overriding the military designation of him as 4-F because of his eyesight. He trained young soldiers in small arms stateside before being shipped to the Philippines for the mop-up operations. My Aunt Kathy and my mother were Army nurse cadets, receiving their nursing training under a government program to provide military nurses. The war ended before they served. To this day, my mind blocks the last line of the Air Force hymn, replacing it with “Nothing can stop the Army Air Corps.”

President Roosevelt said that today would live in infamy, but Pearl Harbor has been replaced by 9-11 in our national tribal memory. Pearl Harbor and D-Day are now footnotes in the all-day news programming. The world has changed. We will probably never again face a global war of nations, though we face a global war of trans-national extremists and international economics.

Saving Private Ryan is, according to those who lived through it, the best recreation of D-Day ever filmed. The 2001 film Pearl Harbor matches it for hard reality in its depiction of the attack 71 years ago today. They are both worth seeing and even owning. We should remember these events. We should remember their aftermath. Only in remembering can we avoid repeating them.

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