As November morphed into December and the 70th anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941, surprise attack on Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces drew near, a friend and former co-worker at the newspaper called. During our chat, we reminisced about the newsroom gyrations we sometimes went through concerning coverage of the anniversary back in the day.
Some old ink-stained wretch of a desk editor would inquire of a young reporter what he or she had in mind for a story commemorating Pearl Harbor Day.
Inevitably, there would occur a silence and a quizzical look on the part of the younger one. Then, likely thinking he was being made sport of — the equivalent newsroom trick of some rookie being sent on a mission to buy a left-handed monkey wrench, perhaps — the skeptical reporter would inevitably ask, “Pearl Harbor Day? What’s that?”
That would set any graybeards within earshot to clucking about how you know you have entered old fogeydom when you are one of the few bananas in the bunch who remembers Pearl Harbor.
The fledgling reporter would subsequently be given a Cliff’s Notes version of the attack that launched America’s Pacific Theater phase of World War II. Then he would be steered toward a contact who might provide material for a feature story on the anniversary, and sent on his way. Likely as not, the scenario would be repeated the following year — deja vu all over again, in the immortal words of that great philosopher, Yogi Berra.
On the sleepy Sunday morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese warplanes came roaring out of the sky over Honolulu to sack the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor and nearby Hickam Field, killing more than 2,400 Americans and wounding 1,100. It was, in the immortal words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “A date which will live in infamy,” and suddenly America was at war with Japan. Four days later, Germany would declare war on the United States, the same day the U.S. declared war on Germany and Italy.
Attacking undetected in two waves from six aircraft carriers, the Japanese planes dropped bombs and torpedoes on the U.S. Pacific fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor, blowing up the battleship Arizona, grounding, destroying or damaging numerous other ships and destroying most of the Army’s planes on the ground at Hickam. Two American aircraft carriers were at sea and escaped the attack.
What a difference 24 hours had made, the lead editorial in the Dec. 8, 1941, Bangor Daily News suggested. One day, America was going about its usual laid-back Sunday business, thankful it had not yet been drawn into a war that was being waged abroad. “Yet, a few hours later, though America had not gone to war, the war had come to America…”
The attack was the defining moment in the lives of many young servicemen stationed in Hawaii who survived to take the fight to the Japanese — a fight that would end in hard-fought victory in August 1945 after far too much of the blood and treasure of both nations had been expended.
The ranks of surviving Pearl Harbor veterans have declined significantly over the years as time has taken its toll. Even though veterans groups will continue to mark the occasion with simple ceremonies of remembrance, as they will in some Maine locations come Wednesday, there soon will be no Pearl Harbor survivors to answer roll call.
Being a survivor of the attack gave a veteran a certain cachet. “He was at Pearl,” someone might say of a veteran marching in the annual Veterans Day parade, and in the minds of bystanders the man’s stock would rise, much as it might for another who had landed at Normandy on D-Day.
Realistically, as the population ages, the shelf life of the Pearl Harbor anniversary story is nearing its expiration date, I suppose, just as much of the nation’s earlier history seems to have faded from our institutional memory. Time marches on, and there are other chronologically younger anniversaries of memorable turning points to be commemorated.
One sad day some future Dec. 7 will pass without so much as a mention of its historical significance in any newspaper — or, more pertinent in this electronic age, on any Internet blog.
But for now, most Americans over a certain age likely remain mindful of a World War II slogan that stuck. “Remember Pearl Harbor,” this age group was advised as kids. And for 70 years now, along with those who were there on that fateful day, they have not forgotten the unforgettable.
BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.