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Brookfield Basics

A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.

The Day That Changed America


 

How quickly we forget; how firmly we assume that the problems we face are the greatest we have ever encountered. Seventy two years ago, America was irrevocably and forever changed.


The ancient Hawaiians called Pearl Harbor Wai Momi - literally translated - "Water of Pearl". On December 7, 1941, war-time Prime Minister Hideki Tojo and the Empire of Japan, attacked the United States Naval installations located there.


I hold a vivid memory of a discussion with my father. He was a naval lieutenant in the Pacific, and one night while doing the dishes together, we arrived on the topic of Pearl Harbor.  I remember him groping for the right words, trying vainly to convey the staggering impact of the attack. Despite his normal articulation, he grew frustrated in his attempt, and finally just said, "All I can tell you Tom, is that all of us - the entire country - knew in the moment we learned of the attack, that nothing would ever be the same".  In Kohler, he and two of his brothers enlisted in the Navy, Air Force and Army respectively. His third brother was too young, and my Uncle John later claimed that the day his three older brothers enlisted was the loneliest day of his life.
 

Pearl changed everything. World War Two ended the Great Depression, and dragged America out of her geo-political isolationism. There were 3,581 casualties at Wai Momi, and hundreds of planes and ships were lost. It could have been much worse, as the U.S. aircraft carriers were at sea for unscheduled training missions, thereby saving them and their enormous crews from certain destruction.  The most devastating loss was the U.S.S. Arizona, whose Memorial is anchored in understated and simplistic beauty in the center of the harbor.
 

Although this marked America's entry into the conflict, World War Two had been raging in Europe for nearly two and a half years. Hitler and his seemingly invincible Wermacht had already swallowed continental Europe, and having overrun fifteen hundred miles of Russia, were at the gates of Moscow. The genocidal fog of Elie Wiesel's Night had descended upon Poland, where already the construction of an unknown camp had begun - a place called Auschwitz-Birkenau.


America had been on the sidelines, offering only material assistance to England via the Lend-Lease program. But after Pearl, and Hitler's lunatic Declaration of War against the U.S. on December 8, we jumped in with both feet and in sotto voce vowed total victory, the only satisfactory measure of which would be the unconditional surrender of our enemies. For the next three and a half years the United States waged war on two global fronts - war on a scale unimaginable today; a conflict that would ultimately claim FIFTY MILLION lives. In May of 1945, with Germany a smoldering cinder block and Japan ravaged by the only atomic weapons ever deployed in warfare, the Unites States had traveled from a bile-filled defeat to complete victory and world prominence.

 
Today, with Japan at our side as an informal ally and staunch trade partner, we forget what an implacable and savage foe she was. Episodes like the Rape of Nanking and the Bataan Death March, which routinely witnessed the torture, starvaton, and beheading of American servicemen, portrayed a savagery and barbarism that rivaled the Nazis. America would be led in the Pacific by the greatest soldier in our history, Douglas MacArthur, whose soaring intellect and unbridled audacity would confound, bedazzle, and ultimately defeat the Japanese. MacArthur conquered more territory while sustaining fewer casualties than any commander in history. Like all of history's immortal soldiers, he was a man of genius, and he accepted the surrender of Japan in May of 1945 on-board another battleship named for a State - the U.S.S. Missouri.
 


But victory could not even be imagined on December 7, 1941. The long road to the decks of the Missouri began in 1942, at the battle of Midway. There, on the brink of another major U.S. defeat, the pilots of the United States Navy's Dauntless dive-bombers wrote their names into immortality. Having located the Japanese carriers, they knowingly flew straight into a maw of steel and fire, to attack and destroy them. Many perished, but not before crippling the Japanese fleet and turning the tide of war in the Pacific.


Remembering Pearl as he watched the Japanese carriers list and burn, Naval Airman Wilmer Gallaher screamed into his radio, "Arizona - I remember you".


It was a different time.

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