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Pearl Harbor survivors overcame insurmountable horror

December 7, 2018 12:27 am

Today marks the 77th anniversary of a day that changed the world.

The Japanese sneak attack on an idyllic Hawaiian naval base called Pearl Harbor began in the morning on a clear, warm sunny Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941.

No one, not the highest intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy, not the military commanders in Washington, D.C., not even President Franklin Roosevelt, suspected that this island paradise would soon become synonymous with fury, death and war.

At 7:55 a.m., the security at this base on the south side of the Hawaiian island of Oahu was shattered as was the peace of an entire nation.

Catching U.S. aircraft carriers, battleships, airplanes and servicemen and women off guard — many literally sleeping — despite a smattering of indistinct coded chatter about an impending ambush of some kind, Japan launched a surprise attack that was designed to yield maximum carnage.

The bombing lasted two horrifying hours — an eternity in hell for the survivors who vividly remember the tragic events today.

When it was over, four battleships — the U.S.S. Arizona, U.S.S. California, U.S.S. Oklahoma and U.S.S. West Virginia — were sent to the bottom of the harbor.

The force of the explosions and the power of the tide beached the U.S.S. Nevada. Three other battleships sustained considerable damage. Three light cruisers, four destroyers, one minelayer, one target ship and four auxiliaries were splintered. The U.S. Navy, the pride of America’s Pacific Ocean might, was shredded, overpowered before anyone knew there was a struggle.

Spared were the aircraft carriers, usually stationed at the harbor, because they were at sea when the attack took place.

Of the U.S. aircraft, 188 planes were destroyed and 159 more were heavily damaged.

A total of 2,335 servicemen were killed and 1,143 were wounded; 68 civilians were also killed and 35 were wounded. Nearly half of the servicemen who were killed were on board the Arizona when a “smart bomb” fired from a Japanese Zero sliced the ship in half. Many more sailors below decks or eating breakfast in mess halls drowned when the bombs sank their vessels.

A little more than 24 hours later, Roosevelt delivered his iconic “A day that will live in infamy” address to Congress. The fiery speech was tantamount to a presidential declaration of war. The congressional declaration that followed was a mere formality.

Today, the number of veterans alive to talk about Pearl Harbor is dwindling. It’s worth noting some telling statistics. Sixteen million Americans served in World War II. As of Sept. 30, only 496,777 are still alive. Nearly 350 World War II veterans die each day. At that rate, all American World War II veterans will be dead in four years. In New York, a state with a population of nearly 20 million, only 26,190 World War II veterans survive.

The surviving veterans have an opportunity to pass on the stories of their war experiences to a generation far removed from such names as Anzio, the Ardenne Forest, the Battle of the Bulge and, yes, even Pearl Harbor. World War II veterans today have an opportunity to make a statement: that courage can prevail over insurmountable horror and that sometimes the peace we hold dear can only be won by fighting for it.