It was 75 years ago on Dec. 7 when 353 aircraft flying under the flag of Imperial Japan launched an attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
The reason for the attack, reportedly, was so the Japanese could prevent American ships from interfering in a series of assaults Japan was planning in Southeast Asia against territories controlled by the United States, United Kingdom and the Netherlands. Indeed, Japan did attack Guam, the Philippines, Wake Island, Saigon and other locations within hours of the Pearl Harbor assault.
Eight U.S. battleships were damaged, as were cruisers, destroyers, an anti-aircraft training ship and a minelayer. There were 2,403 Americans killed that day and more than 1,000 injured. It jump-started the United States into entering World War II, which saw more than 400,000 Americans die in action, a figure second only to the Civil War in terms of American wartime mortality.
It was, in short, a major chapter in the history of our country. In fact, it quickly developed into a major event in the modern world’s history, as we don’t know what the landscape of the globe would have looked like had the U.S. not been pushed into the fray at that exact time.
Would we have been delayed in entering the war until it was too late to curb the momentum built up by the so-called “Axis Powers?” Would we have come in after a significant battle that could have turned the entire war the other direction? Would we be teaching our children German today, and would the Jewish faith be only a chapter in history textbooks? Would things have gone exactly as they did?
We just don’t know with any certainty. If one subscribes to the theory of “the butterfly effect,” every action taken impacts a million other things in return. You could put that “butterfly effect” theory into the impact the attack had on the collective American psyche, as well. Young men got angry and signed up to face the axis powers. Some lied about their ages so they could get over there sooner. Women and children donated their time and energy to get behind the war effort, and many people who were unable to go overseas and fight signed on with the USO or Red Cross.
All that stuff matters.
For sure, the attack on Pearl Harbor was “a date which will live in infamy,” as noted at the time by then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was an impetus in our entering World War II when we did, it froze our nation in time as Americans tried to wrap their heads around what was happening and it still, 75 years later, evokes emotional responses in all who understand what happened that day.
When I was younger, it was one of those conversations you would hear older people having: “Where were you when you heard about Pearl Harbor?” Everyone had their own, unique story, because everyone felt it uniquely unto themselves. The same went for the assasination of then-President John. F. Kennedy, and the moon-landing.
Those were moments when people knew immediately there was historical significance to what was happening, and felt a direct, emotional response within them. I started thinking of events throughout my lifetime that had an impact like those, and there were only a few:
• Maybe it is just because I am a giant sports fan, but the U.S. winning the gold medal in hockey in the 1980 Winter Olympics will also remain in my mind as fresh material. More than the gold-medal game, it was the shocking semifinal victory over the U.S.S.R. that completely blew my mind. There was the tension of Cold War hostilities between the nations, the fact that the Americans were a team of amateur college players going against maybe the greatest professional hockey team the world has seen and the excitement of Al Michael’s memorable call of, “Do you believe in miracles” as the clock ran down on the game.
Whatever caused it, I will forever remember sitting on the floor of my home watching that moment.
• The Space Shuttle “Challenger” exploding in January 1986 will forever be ingrained in my head. NASA was still a really cool thing in 1986, and each launch was met with fanfare, especially with the newer Space Shuttles being used. It was late morning, and I was sitting in a social studies class when word began filtering throughout the school. I remember a girl sitting behind me in class, crying audibly, and there was a sense of rush in all of us to get home and tune in the television to find out what was happening. It was a dark day.
• Sept. 11, 2001. The darkest day in this nation in my lifetime. There was confusion, fear, hysteria and sadness. We weren’t sure if another attack was forthcoming, as we all glued ourselves to televisions, newspapers and magazines for the days and weeks that followed. There was a mixture of anger at what had happened to us, and a knowing fear that we would soon be sending young men and women to another part of the world for both retribution over what happened, and a hope that they would be able to put a stop to any further incidents on our soil.
As much as I’ll never forget the horrible atrocities that took place as they were happening for the world to see, I will also always remember those images of people wandering the streets of New York, hanging pictures of their loved ones on message boards and telephone poles with the hope that they would be found alive.
Remember Pearl Harbor, even if you were too young or not born when it happened. It’s story should never fade away.