Eighty years ago this Tuesday, our parents and grandparents were shaken out of the humdrum of daily living — and the trajectory of their lives forever changed — by news that Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, home to America’s Pacific Fleet and considered a forward deterrent to Japanese attack, had itself come under murderous fire in a surprise Japanese assault. Other U.S. military installations on the island of Oahu and nearby were also hit the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, at about 8 a.m. Hawaii time — 1 p.m. at the White House, where President Franklin D. Roosevelt was just finishing his lunch.
All told, 2,403 service members and civilians died that day, according to President Joe Biden’s Friday “Proclamation on National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, 2021.”
That death toll included 1,177 crew members on the USS Arizona who lost their lives when the venerable battleship was sunk while at harbor. It’s now a permanent memorial to all who lost their lives on that fateful “date which will live in infamy.” Aboard the Arizona that day were 38 sets of brothers, reports The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, citing historian Walter R. Borneman — three-quarters of whom died.
“To this day,” said Biden Friday in his remembrance proclamation, recalling his own visit to the USS Arizona memorial a decade ago, “beads of oil still rise to the surface of the water — metaphorical ‘Black Tears’ shed for those lost in the attack. Reading those names etched in marble was a mournful reminder of the sacrifices and the human cost of protecting our Nation and the ideals this great country represents.”
Yes, the human cost of World War II was great, touching virtually every family, every town, hamlet and city, and probably every street of this great country as boys and men and some women marched off to war, others went to work in factories, offices and for the war effort and everybody scrimped and saved and recycled and reused. And those boys became men while serving, often for years before they saw loved ones again.
Nearly 300,000 U.S. service members died in combat and more than 400,000 fell overall, while nearly 700,000 were wounded. And the whereabouts of more than 72,000 Americans who fell in World War II are still unknown.
These facts unite all of us in reverence and thankfulness for that joint enterprise of war-fighting and home-fires-burning, of factory-working and wartime rationing, and a sad but stoic acceptance of loss that was part of the price of war and victory and freedom. Those qualities united our forebears and allowed them to prevail, not just in that war, but others.
Yet where is that unity of purpose now? Have we squandered that bedrock of patriotism, can-do-ism, that joint contract of citizenship that has always helped us remain free and strong? Where is that national resolve that allowed us, when called to action, to rise above petty political and ideological differences?
On the 80th anniversary of Pearl Harbor’s attack, let us each take a moment to try to shelve our finger-pointing, conspiracy-mongering and anger, if only for a day, and maybe reach out to the last antagonist who irked us to talk about our valorous forebears, instead.
Can we dig down and find those commonalities that should bind us again into one America, one solid, strong nation working together, inexorably to build a better, more just, more prosperous United States — 50 states united not divided?
As the USS Arizona reminds us, those were the days when brothers enlisted together, served together and died together — as happened also with the five Sullivan brothers of Waterloo, Iowa, who enlisted less than a month after Pearl Harbor, then died when their light cruiser, the USS Juneau, was torpedoed for the second time during the Nov. 13, 1942, battle of Guadalcanal, exploded and sank.
After World War II, the U.S. military adopted a policy that made it harder – but not impossible – for siblings to serve together in danger. And, some, maybe many, still do in today’s volunteer military.
We are at peace, but as seen through some lenses, our nation is in danger. Our divisions weaken us.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day reminds us of a day that united us not just in anger and outrage but also in determination, that galvanized every American to find his or her commonalities with every other American, and to step forward to fight for freedom. That determination is within us, just waiting to be found again.
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