My father, a lifelong resident of Gordon County, was 10 years old at the time. He is 85 now, but still remembers sirens blaring everywhere when news first reached our local area of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a treacherous strike which thrust America headlong into World War II. It was a Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, exactly 75 years ago this week. While the attack commenced at 7:35 AM Hawaiian time, that translated to 1:35 PM EST here in Georgia. By mid-afternoon the news was sweeping the country. An otherwise quiet and unseasonably warm day, which had begun with many attending houses of worship and then settling into typically laid-back afternoon routines, was suddenly shattered with the news that would change our country forever.
People all across the nation began to gather together, some in the streets and parks of our towns and cities, others in public places like hotel lobbies and restaurants, but most around radio sets in homes and automobiles. Many Americans had never even heard of Pearl Harbor. Conflicting news reports, misinformation, and rumors all added to the initial confusion. One New York City merchant told his customers that Pearl Harbor was just off the coast of New Jersey. Some returned to church to pray. Servicemen from coast to coast were summoned to report back to their bases and ships “on the double.”
With each passing hour following the attack, the devastating results of what really happened in Hawaii came more sharply into focus. Our Pacific fleet, along with Army air units, had been dealt a crushing blow. Of the 94 ships in port at the time of the Japanese onslaught, 18 were either resting on the bottom of the harbor or had been badly damaged. All eight of our powerful battleships had been mauled by the massive Japanese air assault, four of them sunk outright. Six of the eight “battle wagons” would eventually return to active service in the war. The USS ARIZONA remains today at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, its sunken hulk a memorial and one of the most popular tourist attractions in the islands. Additionally, 347 U.S. aircraft were destroyed by the Japanese, most while still on the ground.
As is always the case, the human toll of Pearl Harbor is the saddest and most sobering reality of Japan’s aggression. Altogether, over 2400 Americans lost their lives on that fateful day, including 68 civilians. Of that total, 1177 were from the USS ARIZONA alone, the largest loss of life on a single U.S. Navy ship in our nation’s history. A staggering 23 sets of brothers perished together on ARIZONA. Japan had launched its surprise attack on America while in the midst of negotiations to lessen tensions between the two nations. Her lust for an Asian empire, and her need to cripple America before launching a massive new thrust throughout the Pacific region, had prompted her deceitful plot.
After Pearl Harbor, Americans would have four long, costly years of war still ahead of them. As we entered what would become the most widespread and devastating war in human history (over 60 million souls would die worldwide before war’s end), we did so with our total military strength severely weakened by years of isolationist sentiment and subsequent budgetary neglect. Depending upon whose analysis you accept, America’s overall military power at the start of World War II ranked anywhere from 13th to 19th among all the nations of the world, behind the likes of Sweden and Portugal. By war’s end America would have put 16 million citizens in uniform, and almost 300,000 of them would lay down their lives in defense of liberty. Her industrial and agricultural might, fueled by the spirit of her free people, would supply the materials and equipment needed for the Allies to win the war. She had gone forth, after Pearl Harbor, not to conquer nor to build an empire, but to defend her freedom and liberate those oppressed by the tyrants. She had become the undeniable leader of the free world. War is always a horrible thing, but sometimes necessary in a just cause. Pearl Harbor had thrust a sleeping giant forward to assume great responsibility on behalf of freedom-loving people everywhere.
For 32 years, Daniel Martinez has served as Pearl Harbor’s chief historian. He is deeply concerned that our national memory of what happened there 75 years ago is becoming dimmer and dimmer. “Most of the young people that come here don’t have a clue what happened at this place. They don’t even know who won the war,” he recently confided to CBS News. Right after the Japanese attack, Americans took up the cry “Remember Pearl Harbor!” Soon, a movie and a wildly popular song, both with that same title, were released. Now is the time to once again call upon Americans to “Remember Pearl Harbor,” 75 years after that eventful day. Remember our national heritage. Remember the blessings of liberty. Remember those who have given so much for the freedom that we enjoy every day of our lives. Remember especially this great generation of Americans, the World War II generation, exemplified by the men and women of Pearl Harbor. Most of them are gone from us now. If we forget them, we forget what we are as a nation.