Accounts, comments and reminiscences of that terrible morning 78 years ago give dramatic emphasis to America’s need to commemorate Pearl Harbor. Dec. 7, 1941, was a colossal lapse and failure militarily, and a tragic awakening to the realities of war and, eventually, to a new era in international relations.
Seventy-eight years later, it is remarkably easy for those who were there to remember the details of that Sunday morning in Hawaii. Flames, noise, diving planes, exploding magazines and smoke, men entombed in their ships — for the generation of World War II, it is a searing memory, an event that thrust America into global conflict.
So it was for Robert Coles of Machias. Coles, who enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17, was finishing his breakfast on the USS Bagley, which was docked at Pearl Harbor, when he saw planes, emblazoned with red circles, overhead. Then, bombs began to fall, and he was soon surrounded by explosions. Although he was not trained to use them, Coles ran to the ship’s .50-caliber machine guns, broke open an ammo box and began firing. He hit two planes before the ship’s chief runner ran onto the scene and assigned Coles to be a plane spotter.
“I was breathing heavy, but I wasn’t scared because everything was happening around me and nothing was happening to me,” he said. Coles later learned that the entire attack lasted less than two hours.
“Two thousand, four hundred and three people lost their lives in that one hour and 50 minutes,” said Coles, who died in 2017 at the age of 93.
Most Americans noting the observance in 2019 were not alive on the day of infamy, when Japanese dive bombers and torpedo planes ravaged the battleships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. To remember Pearl Harbor, for the overwhelming majority of people on this anniversary, is to echo a rallying cry and to rediscover a focal point for war, a war very different from the one in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Pearl Harbor has been taught in schools as an example of lack of vigilance and unpreparedness. America wasn’t ready. America was caught napping. Two thousand men had to die to remind a country that it should never let down its guard.
On reflection and after Sept. 11, 2001, it is apparent that Pearl Harbor also taught lessons, long in the learning, about isolationism, xenophobia, honesty and directness in international relationships, and, most pointedly, about the ultimate folly of warfare and violence as a solution to political and economic problems. These lessons are as appropriate today as they were in 1941.
Both sides of the long-ago attack have since practiced revisionist history. Japanese and American accounts of the war conveniently overlooked the period of imperialism — the subjugation of whole continents by British, Dutch, French and U.S. interests in pursuit of resources. Germany, but especially Japan, got into the game late. There was worldwide depression and anger. The stage was set for conflict. Nations that appeared aggressive grossly underestimated their adversaries and the terrible destruction their weapons would unleash upon all humanity.
Americans, nearly eight decades later, have lost the immediate threat of World War II and the gnawing threat of the Cold War that followed. Now terrorism is of such a concern that Washington has remade the government to prevent the nation from napping again. But the old problem of looking inward instead of outward remains. History repeats itself endlessly and is reason to remember Pearl Harbor.