The morning of December 7, 1941 found Pearl Harbor under a brilliant blue sky and bathed in sunlight and warm breezes. Church bells ringing in the Sunday mass could be heard by the sailors of the forenoon watch taking their breakfast, and sailors on the battleship U.S.S. Nevada hoisted the morning colors while the band on the fantail piped the national anthem. At 7:55am, Rear Admiral William Furlong, skipper of the U.S.S. Oglala, spotted a plane descending on the runway of Ford Island diving too steeply to be coming in for a landing, and saw it drop a bomb on the seaplane ramp. When the plane turned about, he saw the red-orange insignia on the fuselage and knew in that moment that Pearl Harbor was being attacked by the Japanese. He sounded general quarters, and hoisted the signal “All Ships in Harbor Sortie.”
The situation in the harbor now was hellish. Men on deck being strafed and bombed tried desperately to man the AA guns to fend off the attackers, ships shook and roared fire from the explosions, lights went dark, and crew members below deck milled about in confusion. The Japanese plastered the heavily armored USS Arizona with four armor-piercing incendiaries, the fourth of which detonated the forward magazine like a massive hand grenade, sending armor plate, debris, and bodies all mushrooming two-hundred feet into the sky, instantly killing 1177 of the 1400 Arizona crewmen who died in the attack.
Below the decks of the other ships, mattresses and shores plugged holes from bombs and torpedoes against the oil-drenched water. Surgeons with bloody scalpels bent above the wounded, the acrid odor of cordite smoke filled the dank air, and burned men screamed in agony. Crippled by explosions, and hopelessly blanketed with holes and fire, ships like the U.S.S. California, the U.S.S. Nevada, and others either sank, capsized, or were run aground.
On land, a bomb sliced through the mess hall at Hickam Airfield, catching the men innocently at mid-breakfast, killing 35, and sending trays and dishes flying. The bugler at the Schofeild Barracks, unsure of what would rouse his regiment out of their bunks the quickest, sounded the pay call. At the end of the attack lay 2403 dead, 1178 wounded, 18 ships sank or crippled, 188 planes destroyed, 159 damaged, and the United States of America at war.
The attack, in retrospect, was a blunder for the ages by the Japanese. A divided nation, wary of war and “other people’s quarrels,” rose instantly united in shock, grief, and anger, and the recruiting centers were soon flooded to suffocation. The rich boy and the poor boy, the country boy and the city boy, the joiner, the welder, the farmer and the doctor—here the many became one, encapsulating that genius for spontaneous self-organization that De Tocqueville had so clearly seen a century before, and all were harnessed into that massive, charging juggernaut by which the victory was forged.
And never before was there a victory more crucial. Running rampant and unchecked over wide stretches of the globe at the time was the naked expansionism of the Japanese, evidenced most notably by their unprovoked butchery of several hundred thousand innocent souls in a single work week at Nanking, and their murder and enslavement of millions of Chinese and other Asians, along with the Germans’ enslavement of Europe and Russia, evidenced in their most recent slaughter of 33,771 Jews at Babi Yar on September 29-30, 1941, conducted by Nazi Einsatzgruppen Commander Otto Rasch, who bragged in a report to his SS superiors,
“Because of ‘our special talent of organization’, the Jews still believed to the very last moment before being murdered that indeed all that was happening was that they were being resettled!”
Such savagery, writ large upon a continent, was extinguished in no small measure by the sacrifice of G.I.’s battling through the thick of Pacific island jungles, and the Normandy bocage, crowning their achievements on V-E and V-J days .
Destiny seems to serve us notice at odd intervals—1861 at Fort Sumter, 1941 at Pearl Harbor, and 2001 in New York and Washington. In such times, we are reminded that the fate of all free societies are not decided by the shifting sands of “world opinion,” paper treaties, or the cleverness of diplomacy, but, ultimately, by the willingness of brave men to face down death and danger to save by force that which can never be defended and preserved without it.
In each emergency, a vast reservoir of selfless patriotism pours forth to duty and sacrifice, and the young men of 1941 gave of themselves unsparingly, fighting and dying, that others may live in a world where they may speak, worship, and assemble without fear, where the average person could walk down the main street of their hometown, and not be stopped by policemen asking for “papers,” where law and liberty are safe, and where the individual is never a small, soulless fraction of the state.
For this, they fought and died. Memory fades, but the valor of those who fought and sacrificed on that warm December morning seventy-one years ago, shines as brightly as if it were yesterday. Someday those who survived will no longer be with us, but their deeds, and those of their generation, are deathless. Their glory is forever.