Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Remember the Alamo ... and Pearl Harbor

It was a last-minute edit.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt crossed out some words in his speech and replaced them with "infamy." Thus came the iconic radio address to the American people about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor -- "a day that shall live in infamy."

I don't remember it; I was too young. But I do remember it changed things in a way even a child could understand. Blackouts, air-raid drills, rationing. Neighbors called into service, neighbors who didn't return.

It marked American's entry into the "good war," so named by those who could somehow differentiate a good war from a bad one. I remember hearing that a friend of my father was shot down over the Pacific and forced into the infamous Wake Island death march. He returned and brought me wonderful souvenirs -- or so I thought at the time.

Most Americans of a certain age will never forget the meaning of December 7th, of a sneak attack by an imperial power, a brutal dictatorship -- one every bit as racist and brutal as Nazi Germany. We are reminded of it in Laura Hillenbrand's best-selling book, now a movie, "Unbroken."

The numbers on Pearl Harbor are sobering, even today: 360 Japanese warplanes attacking in two waves, 2,403 Americans killed, the entire Pacific fleet destroyed or disabled. Planes obliterated while on the ground at Ford Island. Merchant ships and passenger vessels sunk by Japanese submarines. Harbors in Hilo, Jahului and Nawiliwili shelled, with more loss of life.

My wife and I visited Pearl Harbor earlier this year, our first trip to Hawaii. It was for us, like many Americans, a pilgrimage of sorts. Now a tranquil tourist attraction, the peacefulness belies the horror of that fateful day.

I was struck by the makeup of the visitors, a veritable little United Nations. A Dutch woman said, "I always wanted to see the place that brought American into the war." Her husband added, "And won the war."

Later on that trip, returning from Kauia, our plane approached the Honolulu airport over Pearl Harbor. Looking out the window, I saw something I'll never forget: Four Navy warships lined up side by side, an eerie flashback, what it must have looked like to the attacking Japanese bombers.

If Pearl Harbor was the beginning, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the end. And I'll always be amused by the notion that we really didn't have to drop two atomic bombs on Japan, that those stellar humanitarians didn't deserve that kind of wrath. The American apologists would instead have had us invade the mainland, playing fair with conventional weapons and incurring another half million casualties. No thank you.

But the past is past. We will always remember Pearl Harbor, but we've moved on.

In my working days, I visited Japan many times, even Hiroshima. I have Japanese friends, also of another generation, business colleagues -- gracious and generous and professional. We have all moved on.

But we must never forget.

So happy Pearl Harbor Day -- December 7, 1941 -- a day that will always live in infamy.

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