Dec. 7, 1941. The day that will live in infamy, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt described it in one of his most famous speeches. It is the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
This year, the 79th anniversary of the surprise assault that shocked the world, is also the year of the coronavirus. There will be no groups of students packing classrooms or gym assemblies to talk to veterans or hear stories about the tragedy. There may be few if any ceremonies to mark the historic event that drew our nation into World War II.
Keeping this in mind, a few words about the attack are necessary.
Pearl Harbor changed the world as Americans knew it. The United States had no choice but to go to war and test our mettle against the Axis powers of Germany and Japan. Once in, there was no turning back.
The Japanese sneak attack against U.S. forces in Hawaii did not only drag us into a two-front war. It decimated our Navy, sending battleships to the bottom of the harbor and entombing thousands of sailors and civilians beneath the waves.
Seventy-nine years ago today, the south side of the island of Oahu, a vast paradise of sunshine and beaches, a friendly host to a U.S. naval base, was transformed into a nightmare of death and destruction.
The Japanese air siege came in two waves and lasted for almost two hours, killing 2,335 servicemen and wounding 1,143. Also killed were 68 civilians, many of them nurses and hospital workers caught in the firestorm, while 25 were wounded, according to the National WWII Museum.
The USS Arizona, a mighty battleship, the pride of the fleet, is a symbol of war’s cruelty. Among those on board were 37 sets of brothers. Of those 77 men, 23 sets of brothers died in the attack.
Killed, too, were all 21 members of the Arizona’s band, known as U.S. Navy Band Unit 22. Most of its members were on the Arizona’s deck preparing to play for the daily flag-raising ceremony when the attack began.
Today, the harbor in Hawaii is calm and beautiful, decades removed from the funereal silence, intense flames and acrid black smoke that became the epitaph for eight battleships and scores of aircraft at Hickam Field, Wheeler Field, Bellows Field, Ewa Field, Schoefield Barracks and Kaneohe Naval Air Station.
Of the attack, Pearl Harbor Survivors Association National President William Muehleib once said, “We did what we had to do. We did what we were called to do. And then we went on and lived our lives. It was over and done.”
Visitors who tour the memorials and museum might be surprised to learn that fuel oil from the sunken ships leaked into the harbor for years after the attack. Fittingly, the leaks are sometimes referred to as “The Tears of the Arizona.”
A section of the Arizona’s hull and two gun turrets, submerged in less than 40 feet of water and visible to the naked eye, are a macabre reminder that while the war is over and done, the security and peace we lost are a lasting reminder of the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice to win them back.