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December 7th—An American Legacy

By Bob Ruegsegger

When President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the United States Congress on the day after the assault on Pearl Harbor, his visage was stern and his words were direct. Roosevelt no longer had time for diplomacy.

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date that will live in infamy—the United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan,” declared Roosevelt.

His opening statement was direct and right on the mark. He had captured the immediate significance of the event as well as its ultimate legacy. Less than an hour after the President’s six-minute address, Congress declared war on Japan.

The treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor has endured in the American consciousness. It has been indelibly etched into the psyche of America. It has been a stain on the honor of America that won’t wash out. It has been a ghost that can’t be put to rest. It has become an event that America, as a nation and as a people, will never forget. While the wounds may have healed, the scars are still there to remind America to keep her guard up and to be prepared.

For nearly sixty years, Americans have agonized over that devastating defeat and its tragic consequences. The possibility that it could have been worse has been of little consolation.

Nine powerful battleships, the pride of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, were at Pearl Harbor: California, Oklahoma, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah. These mighty ships were all but helpless during the surprise attack. Although Americans aboard the warships fought back as best they could, they could not defend themselves effectively. The Japanese aircraft, bombers and fighters, were too numerous, and the Japanese pilots too well-rehearsed. It was simply no contest.

The Arizona exploded violently and sank within minutes taking 1100 men with her. Struck by four torpedoes, the Oklahoma turned turtle with her keel above water. The Nevada actually got under weigh but was intentionally run aground to keep the harbor entrance open. Ships were exploding and burning.

Bombs and machine guns ripped apart Army aircraft at Hickam, Bellows, and Wheeler fields. Smoke and fire were everywhere.

America had suffered the most devastating military defeat in her history, the Japanese military leadership was elated because they believed had destroyed most of the mighty American fleet. America, they believed, was no longer an obstacle to Japan’s imperial designs. Most of the Japanese military were convinced that the U.S. Navy would never recover.

Fortunately, for the world, the United States military did recover to turn back Japanese aggression. America and the rest of the world will never forget this devastating chapter in our history.

Annually, more than 1.5 million people visit the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor to pay their respects, educate themselves, and remember the events of that tragic day. Over the years, this memorial in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has become a truly international historic site. People visit from all over the Pacific Rim, and every year more Europeans come to see the memorial. Forty percent of those who visit Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial are not Americans. The brochure provided by the National Park Service is translated into 28 languages. Japanese, Chinese, and German are among the languages included.

“It’s just a story that will never die,” observed Daniel Martinez, the National Park Service historian at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial. “Each generation (especially Americans) becomes familiar with the story through the popular medium of film, but also as an object lesson in American history,” said Martinez. “For 60 years, six decades, we are still tortured by that event and by its controversy, its heroics, and its tragedy.”

Pearl Harbor has become a general symbol for the attack on the island of Oahu, and the U.S.S. Arizona memorial has become the focal point of the tragedy because of the tremendous loss of life aboard the battleship.

More than 2000 Americans died that day on Oahu. Many of them were killed at air fields on the island. Wheeler, Hickam, Bellows, Ewa, and Kaneohe Army and Marine air fields were among those attacked. The aircraft had been placed in the center of the fields, wing tip to wing tip, to guard against sabotage.

“The Arizona Memorial, not to minimize it, serves as a center where all of the history comes together. A visit to the memorial is a culmination of that story,” said Martinez. “It marks the most tragic spot. In particular, the place where the greatest loss of life in American naval history occurred. It’s an appropriate place to come,” he observed.

“The story of Pearl Harbor is a controversial one. It’s also part of the political chatter of preparedness and unpreparedness,” said Martinez. “It’s a Greek tragedy in one sense because it’s so reflective of a day in American history that was dark. People come out here to see where it all happened.”

Skip Wheeler, a lead ranger at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial’s Visitor Center, observed, “This is something that every American should see. The ship out there in the water is a by-product of war and that’s what war does.” The primary mission of the National Park Service has always been one of educating the public. As the veterans of World War II and the survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack fade from the scene, new generations of Americans will have depend upon secondary sources for learning about the historical legacy of the attack. A visit to NPS Visitor Center at Pearl Harbor will eventually be come the most accessible primary source. For future generations, peering into the clear waters at the rusting remains of the Arizona will bring one of the darkest chapters in our history back to life in a way no film or book can. The reality of World War II and the attack upon Pearl Harbor is inescapable here.

A casual visit to the National Park Service Visitor Center at Pearl Harbor frequently has turned into an unforgettable educational experience.

“Many people have come here not having any idea, totally clueless, as to why they were coming out here,” observed Wheeler. “I’ve talked to many people who have gone out to the memorial and have been overwhelmed with what happened here, overwhelmed with grief, so those people have been reached.”
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