Ah, December has arrived and with it, all the excitement of the hustle of Christmas shopping, Santa’s reindeer, and reflections of peace in a world sorely tested. It’s a great time to be alive and be thankful for our many blessings. But as we mail our cards to family and friends wishing for “Peace on Earth,” we’d be well advised to stop and take a moment to remember how December began in 1941, 69 years ago.
Of course, we all know where I’m going with this. December 7, 1941 is, as President FDR called it, “a day that will live in infamy.” This single, carefully-planned and well-executed strike removed the United States Navy’s battleship force as a possible threat to the Japanese Empire’s southward expansion. America, unprepared and now considerably weakened, was abruptly brought into WWII as a result.
Eighteen months earlier, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had transferred the United States Fleet to Pearl Harbor as a presumed deterrent to Japanese aggression. The Japanese military, deeply engaged in the seemingly endless war begun against China in mid-1937, badly needed oil and other raw materials. Commercial access to these necessities was gradually curtailed as the conquests continued. In July 1941 the Western powers halted trade with Japan. As the desperate Japanese schemed to seize the oil and mineral-rich East Indies and Southeast Asia, a Pacific war became inevitable.
The U.S. Fleet’s Pearl Harbor base was reachable by an aircraft carrier force, and the Japanese Navy secretly sent one across the Pacific with greater aerial striking power than had ever been seen on the World’s oceans. Its planes hit just before 8:00 AM on Sunday, 7 December. Within a short time five of eight battleships at Pearl Harbor were sunk or sinking, with the rest damaged. Several other ships and most Hawaii-based combat planes (188) were also knocked out and over 2400 Americans were dead. Soon after, Japanese planes eliminated much of the American air force in the Philippines, and a Japanese Army was ashore in Malaya.
Of course, you know that already. And we also know that the attack had the exact opposite effect from what the Japanese intended. These great Japanese successes, achieved without prior diplomatic formalities, shocked and enraged the previously divided American people into a level of purposeful unity hardly seen before or since. America was now completely united and ready for war! Pearl Harbor stoked a relentless drive to reverse her conquests and remove Japan, Germany and Italy as future threats to World peace.
While Hitler raged (he’d wanted the Japanese to attack Russia), Churchill lifted a toast (“Today, gentlemen, the Japanese have assured us of victory!”) and Admiral Yamamoto worried (“I fear that we have awakened a sleeping giant!”), America went to work. In six months, She defeated the Japanese in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Shortly afterward, the Battle of Midway crippled the Japanese Fleet forever. Don’t mess with the USA!
As a child of the 60s, EVERYONE I knew talked about Pearl Harbor. Each December, we’d gear up for stories of Christmas, the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, and a remembrance of Pearl Harbor. My family at the time was certainly affected. Men and women of every social class signed up to do their part. When my father was drafted into the Army, my Mom signed up to work in an aircraft repair parts facility in Mitchell County, Georgia.
My Dad trained for the coming invasion of Germany, but after the Allied victory in the Ardennes (Battle of the Bulge, 1944), his training shifted to an invasion of Japan. Upon the Japanese surrender, he was shipped to the Philippines, where he served out the remainder of his military tour.
Every man I personally knew who was of age from 1941-1945 served in the military. Over the years, as I grew older, I realized that some never completely recovered from the trauma of the war. It’s a fact I am much more sensitive to today than I could have ever been as a child.
Years later, I found myself assigned to the 25th US Army Infantry Division, Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. In addition to my many visits to Pearl Harbor, I got the chance to work and see firsthand the damage that still exists in plain view to the buildings of Wheeler Field, Hickam Air Force Base, and many surrounding homes and businesses. It didn’t take an overactive imagination to sense and feel what it must have been like to have stood there on that fateful morning as the ferocity of the attack blew your world to oblivion!
The attack on Pearl Harbor accomplished much … the entry of America into WWII, the destruction of Japanese Imperialism, and the ushering in of the Atomic Age as the horrors of weapons of mass destruction made their debut on the world stage.
Today, we live in a much different world. Many of our youth don’t even know about WWII, despite the fact that we still have many living veterans with us today (including my Dad). Pearl Harbor has become just another tourist attraction on beautiful Oahu, and December 7 holds little fanfare among most of the world anymore. But for many, it’s still a painful and emotional memory. And for us, the American people, it stands as a stark reminder that we have enemies in this world who see America as an impediment to their world vision, not a means to achieve it.
So this week, as you prepare for the rush of Christmas cheer, I ask you to pause for just a moment to remember how the world changed forever for ALL generations with the attack on the US Naval Fleet in Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. The life you live today, whether you realize it or not, was forever shaped and propelled by the events that occurred 69 years ago … December 7, 1941.