Every generation endures its most shocking moments. At the age of 14, I witnessed one September morning two 747s crash into the World Trade Center. As my class sat riveted to the television in my second period history class, the memory of my mother telling me of President Kennedy’s Assassination came to mind. I felt shock back then, and fear, constricting fear. It was a reminder that the world was not especially safe nor was it full of innocence as I let myself believe. This past weekend I took some time to understand what my grandparents must have felt one December morning over seventy years ago, when the entire world was at war.
At that point in history beginning in the 1930’s, Japan had ambitions to rule Asia and subjugate its people. In 1931, Emperor Hirohito’s army invaded and assumed control of Manchuria in order to exploit its coal and iron rich mountains. From there, the coastal areas of China were overtaken, culminating in the infamous Rape of Nanking in 1937. Over 300,000 civilians were massacred by Imperial troops, prompting a great outcry by the League of Nations. Despite promises to initiate trade embargoes with Japan, the League was ultimately powerless to halt Tokyo’s territorial expansion. On the other side of the world, Germany and Italy prepared for war as well.
1933 saw the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. His vision was of a world where his Reich would rule a vast stretch of territory from the English Channel to the Pacific coast. He instructed his previously defeated nation to embrace his dream of conquest as a means to avenge itself of the First World War. In order to do this, Hitler silenced all opposition and initiated a campaign of terror for Germany’s ethnic and religious minorities, especially targeting its sizable Jewish population. Many of these millions of innocents would be relocated to secret camps that would enforce slave labor, to assist in the buildup of Germany’s war machine. With Germany effectively a police state, Hitler had his security services later develop a horrific program called “The Final Solution”. This action would murder over 10 million human beings from many nations and creeds during the war’s progression. In 1939 the German military (Wehrmacht), while operating alongside the Soviet Army, invaded and subjugated Poland.
With its Eastern front secure, the German Army then turned its attention to the West. Denmark, Norway, The Netherlands, Belgium, and France fell before the Wehrmacht Panzer divisions and endless columns of troops. Nothing seemed to stop the German conquest of Europe. By June of 1940, England stood alone. For three long months, the British Royal Air force fought the German Luftwaffe for control of the skies over London and other major cities. Bolstered by the courage of their pilots and the profound words of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the people of Great Britain vowed to fight to the bitter end. It was at this time that they and other besieged nations began to receive aid from the United States.
Respecting the American people’s wish to avoid the horrors of war, President Roosevelt met with Churchill to discuss mutual aid. That year, the U.S. Navy and Merchant Marine under orders from Washington D.C., began supply operations to the British, bogged down in heavy fighting with the German and Italian Armies in North Africa, and the Chinese, who were engaged in a guerrilla war with the Japanese. President Roosevelt also agreed to sign a strategic war materials embargo in the face of Japan’s continued war in China as well as its invasion of French Indochina. Viewing restrictions on oil, steel, and other necessary materials as an affront to their ambitions, Tokyo’s war ministry drew up plans to attack the American Pacific fleet. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, a national hero and military genius, urged his Emperor and the Japanese high command that attacking the United States would “awaken a sleeping giant” and would lead to Japan’s immediate triumph or ruin. Ignoring this appeal, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo demanded action in order to secure the empire.
In late November 1941, a combined carrier battle fleet sailed from Japan to the island of Oahu. By the time they arrived it was a Sunday morning, The 350 pilots readied themselves below decks, fastening hachimaki headbands with the words “Certain Victory!” to themselves. With a shout of Tenno Haika Banzai! or “Ten Thousand Years” they boarded their planes for their bombing missions.
As the sun rose, the fleet was at rest. Even as mounting tensions between Washington and Tokyo escalated, no one expected an attack. Religious services were about to be held, fleet bands played “The Star Spangled Banner” on decks, the University of Hawaii was set to play a football match with Willamette College, and military personnel everywhere readied themselves for duty after shore leave. This was the environment before observers reported planes with red circles on their wings.
Mitsuo Fuchida, the attack commander, deployed a flare over the area signaling the attack. A wave of torpedo bombers let loose their payload on the U.S.S. California, Maryland, Arizona and five other battleships, dive bombers proceeded to destroy airfields, oil tanks and other targets. The entire island was in chaos. Entire crews became trapped in the sinking ships. Survivors frantically swam to shore. Air defense teams manned their weapons. Sailors and Marines saved their friends from burning oil slicks. Moments of bravery became common.
Dorie Miller, an African-American ship’s cook, manned a machine gun with two white compatriots. They, along with other weapons teams, saved the lives of hundreds of sailors struggling ashore from strafing attacks. Ensign Francis C. Flaherty sacrificed his life saving a turret crew from the sinking Oklahoma. Warrant Officer Thomas Reeves handed ammunition from a burning passageway on the California to a gun crew, later dying of asphyxiation. Machinist Mate Robert Scott stayed behind and manned an air compressor unit for his battle station as his station became flooded. Before he drowned he was quoted by surviving shipmates as saying “This is my station and I will stay and give them air as long as the guns are going.”
When the raid was over, The U.S. Pacific Fleet was crippled. Over 2,400 Americans lost their lives, half of whom died when the Arizona exploded. As news of the attack spread, the American public flew into a panic. Air raid shelters were constructed, windows were blacked out overnight, gas masks and supplies were bought in bulk, and children were evacuated to the countryside by their parents. The following day when President Roosevelt addressed congress, a miracle happened.
In a tone of determined realism, The President declared Dec. 7th a “Date that would live in Infamy”. While many lives were lost, the attack reminded us of who were and not to give up. Our unbounded determination as a people would see us through. With this speech, America literally responded as one.
City boys from New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles became sailors, manning guns and stoking boilers in our fleets. Ranch hands from Colorado and Texas became crews for the Flying Fortresses. African American and White men worked side by side in munitions factories from Mobile, Alabama to Philadelphia. The sons of autoworkers became tank crews. Mothers, Sisters, Wives and Daughters went to work in factories. High school students everywhere enlisted as Paratroopers, Marines, and fighter pilots. They all accepted the challenge.
The Second World War generation is named the “Greatest Generation”. I think this is not because of their deeds or moral standing. They were great because they overcame their challenge, they ensured that millions of people had the right to live without fear, to survive, and realize a life of dignity. It’s all right to be afraid when challenged by tragedy. You must fight for what you believe in, no matter what the odds.