Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Reflections on the 70th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day

Tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day. In the immortal words of President Franklin Roosevelt, December 7, 1941 is “a date that will live in infamy.”

Unfortunately, most members of the Facebook and Twitter generation believe that history began on September 11, 2001. In their view, any event before that date is boring and irrelevant. And if there is no video documentation of the event, they don’t think it happened at all. For this reason, I was stunned when one of my most educated French American high school students in New York City did not know who Winston Churchill was.

So the question is why this date was so important in history, and why it should matter to all Americans today. Even members of the Facebook generation.

The Japanese aim in attacking Pearl Harbor was to launch a surprise assault which would destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The purpose of smashing the US Pacific Fleet was to put the U.S. Navy out of commission for as long as possible, thus making it more difficult for the U.S. military to retake control of the South Pacific Islands which the Japanese had recently conquered.

In the short term, the Japanese attack was devastatingly successful. In just two hours, the Japanese destroyed nearly 300 planes and almost 18 U.S. naval ships, including 8 battleships. The U.S. Pacific Fleet was seriously weakened in accordance with Japanese plans. The loss of life on the American side was also catastrophic. The attack killed nearly 2,500 American sailors and injured 1,000 more. http://www.history.com/topics/pearl-harbor

Part of the reason why the U.S. Pacific Fleet was left largely undefended by the U.S. government was that faulty U.S. intelligence led the American leadership to believe that the Japanese attack was planned for Thailand and not Hawaii. Thus, this event in history shows the sometimes disastrous results of faulty intelligence.

However, thankfully the damage was not quite as severe as the Japanese intended. Part of the reason was that either by dumb luck or Divine Providence, depending on your point of view, all the Pacific Fleet’s aircraft carriers were away from Pearl Harbor at the time. As a result, the most vital component of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the aircraft carriers, was spared.

On this day, the USS Arizona was completely destroyed, killing 1,177 sailors. The list of casualties and survivors from the USS Arizona is located here. http://www.pearl-harbor.com/arizona/arizona.html  84% of the 1,400 USS Arizona members were killed on this horrific day. And the casualties among the USS Arizona alone constituted over half the deaths of U.S. sailors who were killed on that day. USS Arizona Survivor Vincent James “Jim” Vlach prepared this article http://www.ussarizona.org/history/uss-arizona-history?showall=1&limitstart=

Many USS Arizona survivors, including Mr. Vlach and also John McCray Baker, Seargant, USMC, recorded the heroism of Lieutenant Commander Samuel G. Fuqua.
http://www.ussarizona.org/stories/uss-arizona-survivor-stories/73-baker-john-mccray-usmc  Baker notes that Fuqua saved the lives of many injured men who were so badly burned from the fires on the ship that they could never have survived without his help. After jumping overboard to save his own life upon Fuqua’s orders, Baker looked back to see Fuqua still on the ship deck continuing to assist, direct, and save other men. Fuqua managed to help many others in his role as ship damage control officer although he himself was initially knocked unconscious by the Japanese attack on the USS Arizona. Fuqua won the U.S. Medal of Honor for his heroism.

In addition, Rear Admiral Isaac Kid, a commander on the USS Arizona, received the Medal of Honor posthumously because he gave his own life in defense of his men during the Pearl Harbor attack. http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/pers-us/uspers-k/ic-kidd.htm  Captain Franklin Van Valkenburgh received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroism on this tragic day as well. http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/pers-us/uspers-v/f-vanvlk.htm

Unfortunately, the events of Pearl Harbor are fading into history. One key indication of this fact is the decision of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association to dissolve at the end of 2011. 70 years after Pearl Harbor, so many survivors have died or lost their health that it no longer makes sense to the remaining members to continue their association.

I was gratified to learn from a quick Internet that a number of events are planned to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. A History Channel Documentary called Pearl Harbor: 24 Hours After is premiering. Also a series of symposia on the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor are occurring this week. A special commemoration ceremony is also being held at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center atop the memorial to the destroyed USS Arizona carrier. For more events, check out this web site: http://www.pearlharborevents.com/

This is a day when all Americans should remember the heroism of our sailors at Pearl Harbor. We should honor our dead and recall that they fought and died for the cause of defending democracy and freedom against Japanese imperialist tyranny in the Pacific. We should pay tribute to all our World War II veterans, particularly those who survived Pearl Harbor. And we should honor the sacrifice of today’s generation of warriors who are now fighting for our freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan. Finally, we should not forget the sacrifices of military families in which husbands and wives, fathers and children, are forcibly separated for months or years at a time.

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