Seventy years ago today, at roughly this hour, World War II came to the United States when the Empire of Japan attacked US forces stationed at and around Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It came as a sneak attack, an act of perfidy, as we were not at war with Japan at the time. This outraged America and mortified Japan; they had every intent of following the letter of the law, with the declaration of war to be delivered mere minutes before the attack, but delays kept that from happening. In that attack over 2,400 Americans were killed (some civilians), over half that many wounded, and much of the US Pacific Fleet destroyed or out of action.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was the first “national trauma” the United States experienced — it was the first major event after communications had developed to the point where news of the disaster could be spread so quickly. The news swept the nation like nothing had before, and galvanized the nation to action.
Since then, we’ve had other, similar events. President Kennedy’s assassination. My own childhood was colored by the shooting of President Reagan and the Challenger disaster. And, of course, 9/11. And, lucky us, we got to watch the last two live on television.
But it all started with Pearl Harbor, the attack that brought us into World War II (over two years after it had started, by one definition; almost 10 years, by others). And it changed the world — it permanently put paid to the notion of American isolationism, established us as a superpower, and reshaped the globe (in some cases, somehwat literally).
Some of the battle cries of that war drew upon that day of infamy. “Remember Pearl Harbor!” “Remember The Arizona!” But the men who uttered those cries are fading every day.
Across the nation, there have been countless Pearl Harbor Survivors associations. Men who had been there on that day gathered to reminisce, share stories, and most of all honor those who died on that day. And, as years past, to honor those who survived that day, but have since passed on.
Those societies are fading into history. Not from a lack of interest, but from a lack of members. The youngest of those qualified to join are closing in on 90 years of age. We recently lost the last veterans of World War I, and it won’t be that long before we see the last of the World War II warriors.
And when we lose those tangible links to history, then the lessons of that history will be diminished. I recall once reading that one of the most profound consequences of the Civil War was a matter of grammar — our nation went from “The United States are” to “The United States is.” We went from a collection of nouns to a collective noun. It was a huge shift in perception, but nowadays you’d never find anyone who holds the belief that the states are supreme to the federal government.
Likewise, there are attitudes and beliefs that come from the pre-Pearl Harbor America that are fading away with the veterans. We casually accept and depend upon so many things that they would see as miraculous — even such common things as nigh-universal electrification and indoor plumbing. Transportation — only the very, very rich could cross the continent in less than a day.
We are losing our World War II veterans — I’ve seen estimates from 850 to 1100 per day. My own father was a World War II veteran (Army Air Force, never saw combat), and he passed away 15 years ago.
And when the last Pearl Harbor survivor passes on, when we lose the last person who can remember that day personally, the event itself will simply become another part of our national history.
We owe them that we never let it be forgotten.