It was a quiet and beautiful Sunday morning at Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor — home of America’s Pacific Fleet. Many of the 60,000 Sailors and other military personnel stationed there were still in their bunks resting after a Saturday night on the town. Some were eating breakfast; a few were on duty, others just straggling in. What appeared to be another day in paradise would quickly turn into a nightmare.
At five minutes before 8 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, 183 Japanese aircraft raced across the mountains north of Pearl Harbor with a mission to destroy the U.S. Fleet. Bombs were dropped on fuel and ammunition dumps, buildings, and ships. Japanese pilots strafed the same with wing-mounted machine guns while others dropped torpedoes.
The attack was a surprise. Some Sailors went down with their ships. Some were trapped only to drown inside as water replaced the air in the sinking ship.
Some had to choose between staying aboard a doomed ship, or take a chance by diving into a harbor aflame with burning oil, littered with the dead bodies of their fellow service members. It was truly a living hell.
But in American fashion, these brave men and women pulled together. Ammunition and weapons lockers were cracked open in order to fight back. Army pilots dodged bombs and machine gun fire to make it to their planes in attempt to take to the air and drive off the attackers. Some rendered aid to the injured and dying. Others put their comrades before themselves and risked their own lives to save a stranger.
Fifty minutes later, a second wave of 170 Japanese planes intensified the attack arriving almost simultaneously from three different directions. More than 1,100 Sailors were killed when the U.S.S. Arizona’s forward magazine exploded from a direct bomb strike. In all, the assault claimed 2,403 American lives and left more than a thousand others wounded.
Ninety minutes after it all began, the last Japanese plane headed away from Pearl Harbor and back to its carrier. America’s entry into World War II was solidified.
Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor, would write in his diary, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
Whether or not the Admiral actually wrote those words is debatable, however, there is no doubt the attack did awaken a sleeping giant. Sixteen million fighting Americans would go on to drive the Japanese and Germans into surrender—fighting in every corner of the globe to deliver a world free from tyranny.
Today, fewer than 3,000 Pearl Harbor survivors remain as our last living links with history and the beginning of America’s greatest generation. Most of these brave Americans are now in their late 80s and 90s. Today, we salute their valor and sacrifice, and we honor their fighting spirit—a spirit that has motivated millions of Americans to follow their lead and live by their example.
For most of us born several generations later, it’s hard to relate to the devastation, the loss of life and the implications of those events that happened 70 years ago; and thousands of miles away.
I believe the horrific attack on Pearl Harbor was to the greatest generation what 9/11 is to most of us. Most of us weren’t directly affected by the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., but we felt the horror, the overwhelming emotions and the desire to unite and take the fight to enemy.
Those experiences and emotions must have been similar to what the greatest generation felt and it spurred them on to set a high standard for both future American service members and for how the world would view the United States and its military might.
Those of us who have worn the uniform, and those who will wear it tomorrow, are the legacy of the survivors of Pearl Harbor as well as the millions of brave Veterans who followed in their footsteps. They put country before self and are willing to risk all to save all—the American way of life. We owe all that we are today, to those who came before us.
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