In Praise of Pearl Harbor

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I was prepared to declare my least favorite place in Oahu to be the one I most looked forward to seeing – Pearl Harbor.

It’s not Pearl Harbor’s fault.  I grow queasy at the sight of tour buses and tour groups, and Pearl has both in abudance.  In the parking lot, at the early morning opening (yet already nearly full), signs alert visitors to the fact that the parking lots are “High Theft Areas” and warn against leaving valuables in the car.  Good idea.  I slung my backpack over my shoulder, headed toward the main gate, but grew increasingly puzzled by a steady stream of unhappy visitors returning to the parking lot, all scowls and low muttering under their breath.  “Don’t tell me it’s closed,” thought I, but no – I saw lots of activity beyond.the gates. Maybe they’d already visited all the sites and were making their way unhappily back toward less meaningful parts of Honolulu.

But no again.  The answer came in the form of a sign informing us that, in spite of the warnings to take all valuables with us, there would be absolutely no purses, backpacks, satchels or – in other words – valuables  allowed inside.  Back to the car I trudged, scowling as had so many who had gone before. (One grizzled old veteran passed by muttering, “It didn’t used to be this way.”)

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Once in, I got my free ticket to board the launch out to the Arizona memorial, which I believed (and still do) would be the centerpiece of any visit to Pearl.  When I bought a guided audio tour, the woman behind the counter looked at my ticket and said, “Wow – you have a bit of a wait.”  She pointed at the number 11:30 on the back of the ticket.

“Wait, wait, wait – you mean I can’t board the launch until 11:30?”

“That’s right.”

“But it’s only…” – glance at watch – “7:45.”

“There’s a line.”

I spent one of the hours in the nearby museum, dutifully studying each artifact and reading all the informative displays, and here is where my annoyance gave way to the purpose of my visit and why Pearl Harbor is by far the most popular destination of visitors to Oahu.

December 7, 1941

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FDR “Infamy” speech, with edits

On a bright morning in what must have been a true paradise in the days before mass travel and chain hotels, the sailors and airmen attached to the Pacific Fleet surely gazed in stupefied wonder at the mass of buzzing fighter planes appearing over the hills – and how long did it take for the reality to sink in?

Those aren’t ours.

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I always believed the attack centered on Pearl Harbor alone, but that is not the case.  Several airfields across Oahu were targeted and in the first wave of attack all were heavily damaged (in order to prevent sabotage from Japanese infiltrators, the brass ordered all the American fighter planes gathered together in the center of the airfield, thereby presenting an irresistible and easy target.)

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Bombs fell, torpedoes thought to be impossible to launch in shallow water were launched (after having been modified by the Japanese).  They destroyed the Arizona, capsized the Oklahoma.  Bombs slammed into the Nevada, crippling her – and then the second wave of zeroes screamed out of the air.

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A surprise to me was the number of Japanese tourists at Pearl.  My Japanese friends tend to lay low on December 7th and with every passing year voice a longing that, since it was so long ago, it should be forgotten.

But no.  It should not be forgotten, not by the United States, and not by Japan.  Forgetting or dismissing history is a dangerous game and I was gratified to see the busloads of Japanese visiting the site.   When I entitled this post “In Praise of Pearl Harbor,” I meant of course the heroic response, the dedication and the sacrifice of the sailors and airmen lost that day.  Many below decks never knew what hit them.  Some – over ninety in all – remain entombed within the rusting hull of Arizona.

But Japan, Japan, Japan – it was unquestionably a tragic error, a fatal error, one of the the worst decisions in history, but there is no denying the goals were achieved in the most brilliant way possible.

Most Americans grow silent at the thought, even angry, and December 7 will forever stand for treachery and foul play.  But looking at it objectively and dispassionately, one cannot help but conclude the attack was a stunning succss.  The coordination, planning and executiion were flawless.  True, a massive amount of luck was involved, but when is that not ever the case?  There was also a bit of bad luck too  that day (for Japan) in that the aircraft carriers were at sea and were spared.  Even so, I marvel at the skill of Japan and send sincere thanks heavenward that we are not at war with them today.  They were a profoundly formidable enemy – far more deadly, skilled, and dedicated than the terrorists we face today whose most enduring accomplishment is ensuring we can’t take backpacks into historic sites.

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Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the brains behind the attack, had gone to school at Harvard and spent time in Washington.  While others in the Japanese High Command believed the Americans would become dispirited after the loss of the Pacific Fleet and lose the will to fight, Yamamoto knew better.  The movie Tora! Tora! Tora! (the signal meaning the attack was a success) ends with his famous words:  “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

Yes, indeed.

Hundreds of thousands visit Pearl Harbor to pay their respects and if that means the lines are long, so be it.  They come to remember: the Americans to remember their honored dead, and the Japanese – some of them – to remember that deep within the successful hours and exuberance of a sparkling December morning lay hidden the seeds of unimaginable tragedy.

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1 thought on “In Praise of Pearl Harbor

  1. People obsess with the Third Reich these days, forgetting how formidable – and religiously fervent for its emperor – was Japan. Great piece!

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