The attack on Pearl Harbor, the date which will live in infamy in F.D.R.’s ringing phrase, happened 71 years ago today. Less than 2700 of the 42,000 sailors, soldiers, marines and airmen stationed there that fateful day are still with us. Time has done what the forces of Imperial Japan could not, and soon the memories of that attack will be only a page in history. The lessons of Pearl Harbor are however as timely today as they were on December 7, 1941:
1. It Takes Two to Avoid a War-Today, too many people speak the most dreadful rubbish that boils down to the contention that the US can avoid war if it simply adopts a peaceful policy to all other nations. Nations, like people, have their own goals, and they will pursue those goals as they will, whether the US adopts a “smiley-face” foreign policy or not.
2. Peace Time Mentality-Pearl Harbor was such a disaster largely due to a mindset that gripped too many in the military that it was sufficient to simply go through the motions. This is a common enough attitude in the world, and in peace time it becomes all too common in the military. Pearl Harbor teaches us how disastrous this mentality is in war-time.
3. Peace or War can be a Matter of Seconds- Throughout its history the US has often had wars start quite quickly: The Revolution, The Civil War, Korea, World War II and 9-11. George Washington warned us that: To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace. Too often in our history we have forgotten that sage advice and paid for it at our peril as we learn the old lesson that war can come upon us with the speed of summer lightning, especially in our modern age.
4. Assumptions-Behind every great disaster there are usually a string of bad assumptions. We assumed that the Japanese if they attacked would likely not attack Pearl Harbor. We assumed that a Japanese fleet could not sail from Japan to Hawaii unnoticed. We assumed that our air power, especially with the new-fangled technology called Radar, would be on alert, and that in any case our fleet could defeat anything that Japan could send against it. Pile enough bad assumptions on top of each other and a debacle is in the making.
5. Killing More People Won’t Help Matters-That quote comes from Congresswoman Jeannette Rankin, the lone dissenting vote in the House against declaring war on Japan after Pearl Harbor. A Republican from Montana, Rankin is an interesting figure. The first woman elected to Congress, she served two terms. In her first term she voted against declaring war on Germany in World War I and in her second term she voted against declaring war on Japan. Both votes stemmed from her deep-seated pacificism, both votes were immensely unpopular and both votes effectively ended her political career at two different points in her life. I give her the courage of her convictions. However, her stance after Pearl Harbor illustrates the folly of pacifism as a national policy. The sad truth is that in this vale of tears it is sometimes necessary to take up arms to avoid greater evils than war, and those peoples who forget that truth of the human condition will experience such evils sooner or later. Continue reading
At the end of the epic movie Tora, Tora, Tora, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the head of the combined Japanese fleet, after the successful attack on Pearl Harbor, refuses to join in the elation of his staff, and makes this haunting observation: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” The line is almost certainly apocryphal. The director of the film, Elmo Williams, claimed that Larry Forester, the film’s screenwriter, had found the line in a 1943 letter written by Yamamoto. However, he has been unable to produce the letter, and there is no other evidence that such a letter exists.
However, there is no doubt that Yamamoto would fully have endorsed the sentiment that the line contained. He had studied at Harvard in 1919-1921, and served two tours as a naval attache at the Japanese embassy in Washington DC. He spoke fluent English, and his stays in the US had convinced him of that nation’s vast wealth and industrial power. He had also developed a fondness for both America and Americans.
In the 1930′s Yamamoto spoke out against Japan allying with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, fearing that such an alliance would lead inevitably to a war with the US that Japan would lose. He received frequent death threats as a result from fanatical Japanese nationalists. These were not idle threats, as such nationalists did assassinate a fair number of Japanese politicians and military men during the Thirties who were against war with the US. Yamamoto ignored the threats with studied contempt, viewing it as his duty to the Emperor and Japan to speak out against a disastrous course. Yamamoto wrote in a letter to one nationalist:
Should hostilities once break out between Japan and the United States, it would not be enough that we take Guam and the Philippines, nor even Hawaii and San Francisco. To make victory certain, we would have to march into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House. I wonder if our politicians (who speak so lightly of a Japanese-American war) have confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices. Continue reading
Lieutenant j.g. Aloysius Schmitt had just finished morning mass aboard the USS Oklahoma. Acting chaplain of the Okie, a Sunday meant a busy day for him, a relaxed day for almost everyone else on board the ship. Since they were in port and the country was at peace a Sunday was a day of rest. Besides, the port was a tropical paradise. Life was good for the crew of the Okie.
Father Schmitt, born on December 4, 1909, was an Iowan, about as far from the sea as it is possible to be in the US. Studying in Rome for the priesthood, he was ordained on December 8, 1935. After serving at parishes in Dubuque Iowa and Cheyenne, Wyoming, Father Schmitt received permission to join the Navy and was commissioned a Lieutenant j.g. on June 28, 1939.
On December 7, 1941 at 8:00 AM the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor began. The Oklahoma and the other battleships on battleship row were the primary targets. Alarms began to sound on the Oklahoma, and the ship was hit almost immediately by nine torpedoes from Japanese torpedo bombers. The ship began to list badly and every sailor knew that it was probably just a few minutes before the Okie would capsize. Continue reading
Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, members of the Senate and the House of
Yesterday, December 7th, 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.
The United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation
of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its Emperor looking
toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.
Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the
American island of Oahu, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States and his
colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent
American message. And, while this reply stated that it seemed useless to
continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of
war or of armed attack.
It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it
obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago.
During the intervening time the Japanese Government has deliberately sought to
deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for
continued peace. Continue reading
A trailer from the John Carter Warlord of Mars movie due out in March of next year, a tribute to the continuing popularity of the literary creations of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who died 61 years ago.
Tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Burroughs was living in Hawaii at the time, and wrote a first hand account of the attack. An ardent patriot, the 66 year old Burroughs was too old to see military service in World War II, but he did the next best thing by being a war correspondent and spending the War covering the troops as they advanced island by island. His account of Pearl Harbor: Continue reading
My sainted father was 8 years old on December 7, 1941. He told me how the next day men and older boys, ranging in age from 60-16, gathered in long lines in front of the recruiting offices in Paris, Illinois to sign up to fight. I think those of us who weren’t alive at that time have difficulty grasping the impact Pearl Harbor had on the nation, as it launched the country on a crusade to break the power of the Empire of Japan and Nazi Germany. Continue reading
I guess for most Americans living today the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, seems like ancient history. It does not seem like that to me. As I was growing up in the Sixties I was surrounded by adults who recalled Pearl Harbor. My father, who was 8 years old at the time of the attack, remembered the long lines the next morning in our small town of men waiting outside of the recruiting offices of the Army and Navy to join up. He also conveyed to me the shock of a nation one moment at peace, and the next morning at war. Until September 11, 2001, I really didn’t fully comprehend what my father was talking about.
It is important to recall Pearl Harbor to remember that the safety and security we enjoy can be wrenched from us so easily if we are not vigilant, and also to recall the 2350 Americans who died that day. I have written about one of them here, Father Aloysius Schmitt, a Navy chaplain, who died on the USS Oklahoma saving other men. These men deserve to be remembered and to have prayers said for their souls and today I will do both, and I hope you will join me.
Update: 15 men were awarded the Medal of Honor for their valor that day, 10 of the recipients dying that day. One of the Medal of Honor winners, John Finn, is still alive recently turning 100. Go here to read about these very brave men.
When I was young, I learned of the story of Captain Mitsuo Fuchida of the Imperial Japanese Navy, famous for leading the first wave of the attack on that fateful day of December 7, 1941. Wounded in the battle of Midway, he spent the rest of his life as staff officer, and was actually in Hiroshima only a day before the bombing (he was saved by a call from Headquarters asking him to return to Tokyo).
What is particularly fascinating about his life, however, is what happened after the war:
“War is brutish, inglorious, and a terrible waste.