70 years ago today: A date that will live in infamy

Before December 7th, 1941, most Americans believed that there was little need to concern ourselves with foreign conflicts, and that our own US Navy meant that the two oceans that separate us from Europe and Asia would keep us secure. By the end of the next day, those illusions of isolation and security had been shattered, and the US put firmly on the path to asserting itself as an eventual superpower. The Washington Times interviewed a handful of surviving veterans of the attack on Pearl Harbor, whose recollections reflect the shock that the attack gave this nation, and the end of our illusion of security:

When Mr. Davis enlisted in 1940 at age 17, he was given the choice of where to serve. He chose Pearl Harbor, having heard glowing reports of the “beautiful girls and nice weather” in Hawaii, a stark contrast to his upbringing in the rugged coal region of Pennsylvania.

That decision led to his first brush with death on Dec. 7, 1941. As a young man, Mr. Davis quickly learned how fragile life can be.

The infamous Japanese sneak attack claimed the lives of nearly 2,400 servicemen and women, some of whom Mr. Davis considered friends.

Until now, the memories of this day — its death, shock, and unimaginable bravery — have been safeguarded by an association of survivors from the attack.  This year, though, the torch must be passed:

Since the 1950s, Mr. Davis and others have kept their legacies alive through the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, but the group will disband at the end of the year. Its members are nearing 90 years older, and many have serious health problems.

“It was just getting to be too much for them. The youngest survivors are 88 years old,” said Carol Gladys, the daughter of a Pearl Harbor survivor and secretary of Sons and Daughters, Pearl Harbor Survivors Inc. It’s been in existence since the 1970s, but now will play a much larger role in ensuring the stories aren’t forgotten.

“I think we have a lot of work ahead of us. You walk up to a lot of younger people and ask them what the USS Arizona was, and they have no idea,”Ms. Gladys said. “The younger generation, they have no idea what happened in Hawaii.”

I recall one of my journalism teachers in high school who was also a Pearl Harbor survivor, who shared a few memories with me.  He was on the second ship out of the harbor, but my almost-certainly faulty memory has him saying that was the USS Nevada, which was actually beached after being hit by a torpedo.  He spoke of the battle matter-of-factly and graciously to an all-too-curious student, but it was clear even then to me that he wasn’t terribly anxious to relate much more than the known facts of the attack, and understandably so.

That generation has done its job in carrying the burden of keeping that day alive for Americans.  It’s time for the succeeding generations to pick up that burden ourselves.  Wikipedia has links to sites where readers can learn about the attack that transformed our nation, and there are plenty of books on the subject, too.  Let the torch be passed, for as one of the men in the clip rightly says, our freedom today is owed in large part to the men and women who gave their lives at Pearl Harbor, and those that followed them into battle afterwards.  Their stories deserve to be remembered, and the lessons must be taught to avoid another Pearl Harbor in our future.

Update: The actual FDR quote is “a date that will live in infamy,” not day.  I’ve corrected the headline, and thanks to Pain Train for pointing it out.