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“Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”

-Franklin Delano Roosevelt, December 8, 1941

The attack on Pearl Harbor happened 75 years ago today. When my wife Marie and I were given a trip to Hawaii last year, we had our choice of the entire calendar for when to travel. Of course anybody who knows me knows that there was only one date that would do, which was December 7th. It would be the 74th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Empire, a historical date that cannot be missed. Living veterans would be there. As Sarah Vowell writes in her history on Hawaii Unfamiliar Fishes, ”Unlike the flip-flop wearers on my flight to Honolulu, I didn’t come here for direct sunlight or “fun.” I came to Hawaii because it had been attacked.” When we travel, if there is a battlefield, monument or historical site, it is definitely on the schedule.

It didn’t hurt that Hawaii is where my brother lived – he is a U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook pilot and has been serving for 20 years. He has served multiple tours of duty as well as multiple years in Germany and Hawaii, which means that this would be the first time my wife would be meeting him or his family. As it happened, he was planning to retire from the military and those events would take place while we were there. With the Pearl Harbor anniversary, my brother retiring, and getting out of Baltimore in the dreary month of December, this was already one of our best historical trips yet.

On our flight to Honolulu, there was a Pearl Harbor veteran who was afforded priority boarding on the plane as well as an ovation from everyone around the gate. They had decorated the plane with American flags for the occasion.

We explored Pearl Harbor a few days before the anniversary via the COMPACFLT (Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet) tour, also known as the Admirals Tour. This is only available to military and their families, which my brother was able to hook us up with. The tour showed us even more of Pearl Harbor than is available to the public, including the wreck of the USS Utah on the back side of Ford Island, the spot where the USS Nevada ran aground and of course the wreck and memorial to the USS Arizona. The experience was incredible. It is very difficult to imagine the horrors of that day, even being on the site. It is so calm and serene, and the setting way too beautiful.

The Japanese task force left Japan on November 26, 1941 with six fully loaded aircraft carriers. Once in position to the northwest of Oahu, the Japanese launched their planes before dawn and the attack commenced at 7:55 am. There was no warning and no declaration of war from the Japanese government. Our forces were caught completely by surprise. High priority targets were hit first, such as battleships and aircraft. Bombs, torpedoes, strafing enemy planes and errant shells exploded all over the island that morning for about two hours, and at the end of the day there were 2,403 killed and 1,178 wounded. Also, 8 battleships, 3 cruisers, 3 destroyers, 188 aircraft and a handful of other ships and assets were either damaged, sunk, or destroyed. It was, as Roosevelt said in his speech the next day, an unprovoked and dastardly attack.

The shattered and twisted hull of the Utah is partly above water and is an eerie trip back in time to look upon it. The USS Arizona took 1,177 lives with it when the forward magazine was detonated by a bomb dropped from a Japanese plane, accounting for over half of the total casualties for the day. The explosion was so massive that it caused the gun turrets and part of the conning tower to collapse downward about 30 feet. The ship remains where it sunk, a tomb to the men buried inside. The modern memorial is moored above it, and when you look down into the dark waters you can barely make out the shattered hull of a ship that looks nothing like it did on December 6, 1941.

On the day of the anniversary, we arrived early to the ceremony and watched only a few dozen Pearl Harbor survivors arrive and be seated in the front row. Their numbers are dwindling fast, and later this day divers returned the remains of one of the survivors of the USS Arizona to his ship: 100-year-old Joseph Langdell, who was the last surviving officer of the Arizona. This year is the 75th anniversary and will hopefully see an increase in Pearl Harbor survivor’s attendance if only to be their last visit as the ravages of time take them one by one. The Navy and the National Park Service are gearing up to pull out all the stops. The 75th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg in 1938 saw just 25 veterans of that battle from both sides return for one last big reunion, which included about 1800 other veterans from the whole war. This could be the last great reunion of WWII.

The ceremony I saw focused on the reconciliation between Japan and the United States after the war, the incredible and improbable peace that followed rather than the actual events of the day. I have to admit I was struggling with this idea. Are we not here to stop and remember the attack, the wounded, the dead, the sacrifice? Isn’t this a time for anger? December 8, 1941 was a day of righteous anger in the United States, and it would fuel the biggest war effort that United States has ever put forth. And yet the peace that would come from this war is in many ways a bigger victory and would have farther implications than the war itself. We did not repeat the mistakes of the Treaty of Versailles after WWI, which led to the rise of Hitler in a reawakened and bitter Germany 20 years later. Instead, we embraced our defeated enemies as allies, invested in their economies and helped them create democracies. Today Japan and Germany are two of the world’s most powerful and advanced nations, who we are lucky to count as close allies. The keynote speaker I heard, Historian David Kennedy shared this story: one of the Japanese diplomats who witnessed the surrender ceremony on the deck of the USS Missouri, and witnessing the magnanimity of the Americans and General MacArthur’s speech wondered “whether it would have been possible for us, had we been victorious, to embrace the vanquished with similar magnanimity. Clearly, it would have been different.”

Kennedy closed his speech thusly:

“For us, it was more than merely possible. It was our destiny, and our character to be magnanimous in victory. Magnanimity has deep roots in American history. From George Washington’s alteration of the customary rules of warfare in his decree that British prisoners of war should be treated humanely in the American Revolution. To Ulysses Grant’s order at Appomattox Court House that Robert E. Lee’s troops should keep their horses for the spring planting, to Abraham Lincoln’s ringing declaration in his second inaugural address that we should have malice toward none and charity for all, as we bind up the nation’s wounds and in Lincoln’s words, do all we can to achieve a just and lasting peace for all nations.”

Clearly, we have come a long way since that horrible day 75 years ago, and it was such an honor to be there with the guys who lived through it. On our way back to the shuttle we came upon the “honor walk,” which is where each Pearl Harbor veteran is afforded a long phalanx of saluting service men and women on either side. Here we saw the veteran that had been on our flight from Dallas, whom I learned was John Seelie. Afterward we headed up to the “Punchbowl” cemetery, which is set in the bowl of a volcano crater, also known as the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. It is similar to Arlington National Cemetery in that it is a national military cemetery, but in this case it contains many of the dead from Pearl Harbor, the Pacific war and the war in Korea. They had put an American flag and a lei (wreath) on the grave of each Pearl Harbor victim. It was such a stunning place, and we barely noticed as two hours went by here.

On the memorial at the top of the hill was a quote from a letter Lincoln wrote to a Mrs. Bixby, who lost all 5 of her sons in the Civil War. It says,

“The solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”

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