Today is a special day—it’s the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor that caused the United States to enter World War II (WWII). The attack began at just before 8:00 am Hawaiian time. The Japanese aircraft did everything they could to destroy our fleet. They almost succeeded. I say almost because the most important ships, the aircraft carriers, happened to be somewhere else that day. The Japanese also somehow managed to miss the dry docks that would be used to repair many of the ships they damaged, along with oil depots, repair shops, and submarine pens. We lost 2,341 Navy, Marine, and Army personnel that day, along with 49 civilians. The destruction of ships, aircraft, buildings, and other war materials was equally impressive. As terrible as this day was though, the loss would be just the tip of a much larger mountain of people who would be killed during WWII. You’ve probably heard all of this before. If not, you’ll likely hear it today.
One of the more interesting facts about the start of WWII is that Japan was actually an American ally during WWI. I’ve always found this interesting because the start of the tragedy that was WWII was sown during the completion of WWI. You can’t really understand how WWII started without first studying WWI. For example, most people don’t realize that there was outright discrimination against the Japanese in the League of Nations. America was one of the countries that voted against the Japanese proposed “racial equality clause” that would have reduced discrimination against Japan on the world stage. Of course, none of this excuses the Japanese attack and I’m not trying to defend them in any way—I’m simply interested in trying to figure out what series of events eventually caused the outbreak of WWII. The causes are not nearly so one sided as many would have you believe and the results, terrible as they were, were not simply the delusional efforts of madmen that came to power in these countries. We all have a seat at the table of conspirators for that war—one that could have been avoided.
Causes aside, reading the stories of the veterans of Pearl Harbor tells a fuller story. These men had no political ambitions and most of them weren’t even aware of the Japanese grievances. Remember, America was xenophobic at the time—we didn’t concern ourselves in the affairs of other countries. They were there to do a job—a really hard job. Having been in the Navy myself for ten years, I can attest to the difficult conditions, long work hours, and excessively low pay anyone in the service has to live with. The world is an imperfect place and it’ll always be imperfect because it’s staffed by equally imperfect humans. If Japan truly had a gripe against America, it should have resolved these grievances in the right way. Instead, Japan killed thousands of service personnel who weren’t even able to arm themselves in time. The attack was a complete surprise.
I’ve stood at the Arizona Memorial several times when my ship visited Hawaii and tried to imagine the terrible conflagration that broke out on that day. It would have been incomprehensible. I’ve read the first hand reports of burn victims whose skin simply peeled off when touched. Yet, our service personnel distinguished themselves by trying to defend our country against the Japanese attack. It boggles the mind. I’d like to think I would have had the inner strength to join in and do my duty during such an event. Thankfully, I was never tested in quite that way.
A recent article in The American Legion magazine talks of that day and the ways in which we have remembered it. Unfortunately, most Americans won’t have an opportunity to see the Arizona Memorial or fully understand the horrifying nature of that event. Still, as the actors in that war continue to pass on and fade from memory, we must never forget that day or we’ll be doomed to relive it. Americans owe part of their freedom today to the blood shed on that day. If we’re to honor those combatants and their ultimate sacrifice, we must consider today the ramifications of the events surrounding that war. Remembering the causes, the effects, and the loss of innocent lives is the best way to honor our war dead.