“Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dec. 8, 1941.
With these words the president of the United States told a joint session of Congress the details of the surprise attack on the naval base at Pear Harbor and other bases in the Pacific Theater. The nation had heard the radio reports the day before, as the attack was taking place and the men and women of the military were staring the work of rescuing the injured and taking care of the dead and dying.
Growing up I heard my parents and others talking about Dec. 7 and the impact it had on our nation. I never fully understood the emotion people had about that particular day until September 11, 2001. Then Dec. 7 became a very real emotional historical moment for me. I understood the anger that my parents had felt about what happened at Pearl Harbor.
This coming Wednesday will mark the 75th anniversary of that attack. Most of the veterans of that conflict and the Second World War have gone home to be with the Lord. The few survivors are quite old and in just a few more years the last one of those heroes will have Taps played for them.
A few years ago I happened to be in Hawaii and made it a point of visiting the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial and, as luck would have it, that particular day the last surviving Battleship Bugler was heading out to the Arizona to play Taps for the fallen. It was a ritual he did one Sunday each month for a number of years. He played two sets. The first one was the Japanese version that they use to honor their fallen and then he played Taps.
As it echoed and I looked upon the water over that great ship with the oil slick floating upon the surface all these years later I wept. I wasn’t alone. Flowers were tossed in memory and the somber tone filled the air. I stood and read name after name after name of those who perished that early Sunday morning. They were the first casualties of the war in the Pacific and thousands would follow them to early graves.
In his speech to Congress President Roosevelt assured the American people that the United States would fight the Japanese Empire until we were victorious. Years later the Japanese Empire surrendered to the American’s aboard the U.S.S. Missouri and the war was over.
The United States did not enter Japan as a conquering nation but as a nation and people ready to help rebuild a war torn country. We occupied for a few years and then left. Japan has become an ally and a great trading partner. I have a few items in my home stamped, “Made in Occupied Japan.” They are reminders of a time in history that followed a time when our freedom was at risk of being lost to an enemy.
On that early Sunday morning, military folks were enjoying a day of rest following a usual Saturday night out and then the attack came. Many died in their bunks never knowing what had happened. Others died fighting the attackers.
My friend, Henry “Hank” Stavast, was a gunner’s mate on the Tennessee when the attack occurred, and 25 years ago Hank came to my school to tell my students about the battle and what it was like to have the bullets flying around you and your buddies dead next to you. He told of the sounds of the battle and the blast of the Arizona that shook the Tennessee.
We presented Hank with a flag that had been flown over the Arizona in his honor on July 4 of that year. It was the only time I ever saw him weep as he accepted it on behalf of the “Real Heroes of the Day” - the guys who did not make it. Hank made quite an impression on the students of Thomas Jefferson that day.
The Japanese admiral who was in charge of the attack was noted for stating that he feared that Japan had “only awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with a terrible resolve.” That admiral, Isoroku Yamamoto, died in the war in 1943.
FDR closed his address that fateful day with the following: “With confidence in our armed forces - with the unbounding determination of our people - we will gain the inevitable triumph - so help us God.”
The Americans represented by the veterans showed that the sleeping giant was awakened that day and was indeed filled with a terrible resolve.
This coming Wednesday at 10 a.m. PST it will be 27,393 days to the moment of the attack. I ask that you take time to silently say a prayer for those who gave so much in defense of our liberty. Rest in peace.