By all reports, it was an impossibly beautiful morning in Honolulu when, at 7:48 AM, waves of Japanese fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes appeared over the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor and unleashed a devastating attack.
“Air raid Pearl Harbor. This is not a drill,” read the message to all commands. Despite the fact that knowledgeable people knew that war with Japan was inevitable, the attack came as a complete surprise, catching the U.S. fleet with its battleships lined up in a row, making them easy targets for Japanese torpedo planes and bombers.
Eight battleships were put out of commission that day, with two — the Arizona and the Oklahoma — damaged beyond repair. Ten other ships were also heavily damaged. More than 2,400 Americans were killed.
President Roosevelt, fearing a full blown panic if the full-truth of our losses were known, hid the ghastly news from the American people. Eventually, a commission set up to examine the attack released its findings in 1943 and the full story of what occurred that day was revealed.
It’s 72 years later and the living survivors of that attack are rapidly dwindling in number. They can never forget December 7, 1941 — but why do we?
Former Louisiana state Sen. Jackson B. Davis, now 95, who was a Navy officer assigned to intelligence duties, says he has not been asked to talk to any groups this year. “That is unusual. I usually do.”
“It’s the same old story,” Davis said, illustrating his point by taking it to an extreme. “We don’t hear much about Gettysburg anymore, or Bunker Hill. Or when the Normans took over England – we don’t hear much about that.”
Davis is one of only three known Pearl Harbor survivors still alive in Shreveport-Bossier City.
“There’s not many of us left to think about it,” Davis said.
In 1991, at least two dozen local Pearl Harbor survivors received commemorative medallions belatedly authorized by Congress for the 50th anniversary of the attack. The delay was largely because of a general feeling that defeats are not celebrated, no matter how great their historic importance.
So why is this important U.S. military event of the 20th century fading in the popular memory? It could be that 2013 marks an irregular anniversary, 72 years. That doesn’t convey the same urgency as a 50th or 75th anniversary. More likely, observers say, the culprit is time.
“In the 1920s, there were still reunions of Confederate veterans. But in the 1930s, there were very few of them left,” Shreveport historian Gary Joiner said. “In fact, the last reunion was held here. People remember that because these were the guys who experienced it.” When the last of these men died in the 1950s, there was a great resurgence of interest in that conflict, “and then it came too late.”
Joiner sees a parallel with World War II veterans, especially Pearl Harbor survivors, veterans of the oldest and most significant part of U.S. involvement. “With World War II, we’re losing so many veterans every day that we are seeing the same type of thing. It’s almost a natural progression, from current events to memory to history.”
As with the Civil War veterans, the work of preserving and processing the story of the Pearl Harbor veterans will shift to others.
“Now it’s going to be the place of the professional historians and good amateur historians to come in and do for World War II veterans what was done in the late 1950s and since to the Civil War,” Joiner said. The parades may stop, but the assessment will continue.”
We are losing 2,000 World War II veterans every day. But even when the last survivor passes over, the story will not end, nor will the memories of those who served be lost. They will be kept alive by us, their descendants — a labor of love and respect for those who sacrificed in ways that seem to us remarkable.
The anniversary of Pearl Harbor, like the recent Gettysburg remembrance, is not “celebrated,” but recalled. And by remembering what happened, we impart a little immortality to those who lived through the horror, granting them a place in our collective memory where we can cherish them and honor their service.
Civil War historian Bruce Catton used regimental histories to tell the stories of veterans of that conflict. What emerged in his writings was the sense of ordinary men — farmers, laborers, store clerks — doing extraordinary things. Much the same can be said of World War II chroniclers like Stephen Ambrose (Citizen Soldiers) and E.B. Sledge (With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa). Living or dead, by remembering their exploits, we perform a vital service to our civilization: we become part of a collective memory so that long after the last warrior is laid to rest, he and his compatriots will never be forgotten.