In the early 1970s, when I was approaching school age, my mother needed some flooring laid in our home and hired a man named Ockie to do the work. I remember little about him other than that he was the first person of Japanese descent whom I had seen in my young life. Years later, she told me that Ockie had been interned as a youngster, along with his parents, in California during the war. “He was very angry about it,” she remembered; he had pointed out that his father was an American citizen. At the time, all I knew was that Ockie was Japanese, and that America had fought the Japanese, but that we were friends now, as my mother assured me. Adults were funny: they blew things up to the heavens and then sat in quiet kitchens, pricing linoleum by the square foot.

Even then, I knew the two words—Pearl Harbor—and I had images to go with them, especially that of the smoldering USS Arizona, pictures of which I’d seen in the World Book encyclopedia. Pearl Harbor meant “sneak attack” and December 7, 1941, a “date which will live in infamy.” I had heard Franklin Roosevelt’s voice saying these words, his cadence sealing them into permanent memory. In the original draft of this speech, the president had written that the day would live in “world history,” but he struck that phrase in favor of the archaic-sounding, morally fearsome “infamy.” You didn’t need to know what the word meant. You only needed to hear him say it.

I’m sure that my mother and Ockie had at least one thing in common: they both knew where they were when they heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. For a younger generation, the “where were you when” moment is September 11, 2001, an atrocity that prompted comparisons with Pearl Harbor, whose survivors were preparing to mark the 60th anniversary of the attacks that year. The two cataclysms had much in common—they were unexpected, horrific, and destroyed thousands of lives—but they also quickly took on the character of their very different cultural epochs. Pearl Harbor aroused American resolve that channeled itself into a unified war effort, one that would produce an industrial war-making machine such as the world has never seen—just what was needed to win a war such as the world had never seen. September 11, by contrast, spawned a short-lived autumn of flag-waving that soon reverted to parochialism, political factionalism, and the by-now well-rehearsed cultural message that somehow, we must have deserved it. Ours is an age more inclined to apologize for rendering judgment than to condemn the deeds that prompt the judgment.

It was different in 1941. To the generation that lived through Pearl Harbor, and especially those who were there that day, Roosevelt’s words rang true.

Seventy-five years later, the oil is still leaking from the Arizona; droplets come to the surface in ghostly rainbow patterns. “Black tears,” survivors called them. The Arizona is the most visible symbol of the American catastrophe of that day. Of the ship’s 1,511 crewmen, 1,177 perished—nearly half of the 2,403 lost at Pearl Harbor, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. The ship was doomed by a 1,700-pound Japanese bomb that blasted through its storage area, which held 1 million pounds of ammunition and 180,000 gallons of gas. These incendiaries acted in the same way that aviation fuel did on 9/11, turning the battleship into an inferno. Sailors could barely stand on deck without hopping from one foot to the other because of the heat, and they could smell the burning oil spilling into Pearl Harbor. Some of those who survived the wreck had to brave swimming through the fiery waters.

The Japanese had struck that morning shortly before 8 am, Hawaiian time—early afternoon in Washington, D.C. Their attack was long planned, even as diplomatic talks continued between Tokyo and Washington in an attempt to resolve disputes involving Japanese aggression in China and Southeast Asia and a resulting U.S. oil embargo. An armada of Japanese destroyers and aircraft carriers steamed across the Pacific toward Hawaii in complete radio silence, avoiding detection.

On the morning of December 7, the Japanese launched 353 planes, in two waves. Their main targets were the American airfields—Hickam, Wheeler, Ford Island, Kaneohe Naval Air Station, and Ewa Marine Corps Air Station—and Battleship Row, where, along with the Arizona, a host of American battleships were sitting in port. These included the Nevada, West Virginia, California, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. As luck would have it, no U.S. aircraft carriers were at Pearl Harbor that day.

It was Sunday morning, peacetime. Many American seamen were getting some extra sleep or making their way back to their ships after a Saturday evening out. Defenses were down. Radar was primitive in 1941, though it did pick up the Japanese squadron moving into Hawaiian airspace at 7 o’clock. An American commander dismissed the sighting, assuming that it was the expected arrival of American B-17s from San Francisco.

When the bombs started dropping at about 7:55, many assumed that it was a drill. The Navy and Army ran frequent bombing tests. On board the Nevada, Oden McMillan was about to lead his band in morning colors, which started promptly at 8. As the band lined up, they saw planes dive-bombing Ford Island, but they thought nothing of it until low-flying Japanese planes dropped a torpedo, aimed at the Arizona, and then flew over the Nevada, strafing it with fire. The band knew now that the attack was real—but kept playing. It had never occurred to McMillan, Walter Lord wrote in his classic Day of Infamy, “that once he had begun playing the National Anthem, he could possibly stop.” The band made its way through “The Star Spangled Banner,” the ship’s deck wobbling and splintering below the musicians’ feet. “Not a man broke formation until the final note died,” Lord wrote. “Then everyone ran wildly for cover.”

All told, in a two-hour attack, the Japanese sunk or damaged 18 American ships, including eight battleships, though most would be salvaged. Only the Arizona and the Oklahoma, which was capsized, suffered total loss. These repairs might have been much slower in coming had the Japanese not opted to abort a third phase of the attack, on Pearl Harbor’s fuel-oil storage and ship-rebuilding facilities. Admiral Chūichi Nagumo, seeing that the Americans were beginning to pick off more of his strike force with antiaircraft fire, decided to play it safe and terminate the mission.

As it was, the devastation was immense. For days afterward, rescue crews worked to cut holes through the Oklahoma’s hull to rescue the men trapped inside. Some were saved; many others died of asphyxiation or drowning. But the grimmest fate was that of three young sailors—Clifford Olds, Ronald Endicott, and Louis “Buddy” Costin—on board the West Virginia, which had sunk to the bottom of Pearl Harbor, trapping the men inside the pump room. It was well-provisioned, with food rations and fresh water. But there was no feasible way to drill through the pressurized hull underwater to rescue the men without causing a blowout that would kill their rescuers. No rescue was attempted, though the seamen made themselves heard, banging away in the hope that someone above would save them. They survived for more than two weeks in these agonizing circumstances. “Pretty soon nobody wanted to do guard duty, especially at night when it was quiet,” said Marine Corps bugler Richard Fiske. “It didn’t stop until Christmas Eve.”

The Japanese also destroyed 188 American aircraft and damaged another 159—many of them lined up at Hickam Field in neat rows, easy targets for Japanese bombers. Army lieutenant general Walter Short, worried about Japanese saboteurs on Oahu, thought that they would be better protected that way. Like naval admiral Husband E. Kimmel, commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Short dismissed chances that the Japanese might attack Pearl Harbor. Kimmel believed that any Japanese attack would happen at sea. Short and Kimmel would both lose their commands after the attack and spend the rest of their lives defending their decisions. Still, Kimmel didn’t need to be told what the attack meant for his future. Watching the bombing from his office window, he ripped his four-star admiral shoulder boards off of his sleeve and replaced them with two-star shoulder boards. By one account, after a bullet whizzed through the window and narrowly missed the admiral, Kimmel said, “It would have been merciful had it killed me.”

Not just its human losses, but also the images of a devastating military rout, with the mighty U.S. fleet in flames, coupled with the chilling success with which the Japanese had caught us unawares, ensured that Pearl Harbor would stay forever in the minds of Americans who lived through the events. Those up in arms about “fake news” today should have heard some of the fake news that proliferated after the attacks about Japanese saboteurs, who were seemingly everywhere. According to one rumor on Oahu, Japanese milk delivery drivers used radio transmitters to help guide in the enemy planes. “The stories spread faster than they could possibly be disproved or checked,” Lord wrote. Two months later, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, mandating internment.

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Hindsight offers consolations, not only the advantage of knowing that we would win the war, but also that the heroism that would make that feat possible was present on December 7, too, almost everywhere one looked.

John William Finn, a chief petty officer in the Navy, was stationed at Kaneohe Bay. The bombs woke him from a Sunday morning slumber; he drove over to the base, only about a mile from his home, and he saw the bombers in the air. By the time he arrived, many of the base’s seaplanes had already been destroyed. The base had no antiaircraft guns, so Finn detached the machine gun from one of the planes, mounted it on a stand in an exposed area, and started firing—and barely stopped for the next two hours, though he suffered 21 separate wounds from shrapnel, one of which caused him to lose feeling in his left arm. His Medal of Honor citation described his “complete disregard for his own personal safety.” He later shrugged: “It just wasn’t my day to die.” At 99, he stood next to President Obama at Arlington Cemetery on National Medal of Honor Day.

It certainly seemed that it was 19-year-old Donald Stratton’s day to die. On board the Arizona, the seaman first class could see the Japanese pilots’ faces, they flew so low; some were smiling, even waving. Stratton suffered burns across 70 percent of his body and survived only when Joe George, a boatswain’s mate on board the USS Vestal, a repair ship docked alongside the Arizona, disobeyed orders and threw out a line to Stratton and other desperate Arizona crewmen. They climbed across, hand over hand, 70 feet to the Vestal. Stratton spent about a year in the hospital—at one point, doctors put maggots on his body to eat the masses of dead skin—before being discharged and sent home to Nebraska. He reenlisted, endured another boot camp, and fought at Okinawa, where he dodged death again.

Many other Arizona survivors might not have made it without the heroics of Lieutenant Commander Samuel Fuqua, who was knocked unconscious by one of the first bombs, came to, and got busy fighting the ship’s fires. After the Arizona took its fatal blow, which killed many of its men in an instant, Fuqua became the ship’s senior surviving officer. Strafed constantly by enemy fire, he led the ship’s evacuation. “I can still see him standing there, ankle deep in water, stub of a cigar in his mouth, cool and efficient, oblivious to the danger around him,” said a crewman, Edward Wentzlaff. On his way in to shore on a boat, under heavy fire, Fuqua hauled survivors out of the water.

Perhaps the most inspiring moment of the day on the American side was the sight of the USS Nevada, though damaged by bombs, pulling out of the harbor, the only ship from Battleship Row to get moving. The Nevada managed to shoot down a handful of Japanese planes, but, at risk of sinking, it was grounded off an area known as Hospital Point. Many, like Seaman Thomas Malmin, who was aboard, recalled seeing, through clouds of black smoke, the ship’s flag flying on the fantail. Malmin “recalled that ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ was written under similar conditions, and he felt the glow of living the same experience,” Lord wrote. “He understood better the words of Francis Scott Key.”

Less dramatic gestures of resistance were also plentiful. “Praise the lord and pass the ammunition,” said the chaplain on board the New Orleans as its men attempted to fire back at the marauders. A boatswain’s mate on the Monaghan, waiting for ammunition to be brought up to the deck so that he could begin firing at the Japanese, threw wrenches at their planes in the meantime. At Ewa, the Marine air base, a lone Marine, armed only with a pistol, stood beside a ruined plane, firing away at the Japanese bombers, even as they swooped down on him. Japanese lieutenant Yoshio Shiga, one of those enemy pilots, called him the bravest American. The defiance extended to the infirmaries, too. A doctor refused a navy seaman’s request for orange juice, thinking that it might be fatal, since the seaman had a serious stomach wound. When he protested, the doctor told his nurse to get the juice; the patient would probably die anyway, he whispered. “I heard you, doctor,” the seaman called out, “and I still want orange juice.” He didn’t die.

The hardiness extended as well to the nation’s political leaders. Roosevelt’s speech set the tone, with its stark opening sentence and its direct, euphemism-free admission of what had occurred: “The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost.”

The president’s Republican adversaries in Congress, including isolationists who had accused him of trying to get the United States into war, now lined up behind him. “There is no politics here,” said Joseph W. Martin, the House minority leader. “There is only one party when it comes to the integrity and honor of the country.”  He was echoed by the Senate minority leader, Charles L. McNary of Oregon. “The Republicans will all go along, in my opinion, with whatever is done.”  And the isolationist congressman Hamilton Fish of New York, a World War I veteran and reservist, urged Americans to get behind the president. “And if there is a call for troops,” Fish added, “I expect to offer my services to a combat division.”

Behind the unity was anger and a desire for putting things right. “I am an old-time Yankee,” said Congressman Charles A. Eaton of New Jersey, a Republican, “and when people start shoving us around I’m ready to shove back.” Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia agreed. “All American resources should be mobilized to wipe Japan off the map,” he said, in words that, if uttered today, would surely require a public retraction. “The only course open to America is to declare war on Japan and I hope this will be done tomorrow by unanimous vote of Congress.” Close enough: on December 8, the Senate voted 82-0 and the House 388-1 to declare war. (The holdout was Republican Jeannette Rankin of Montana, a committed pacifist and the first woman to serve in Congress.)

Perhaps the most marked contrast with our time can be found in the tones of the paper of record. In its editorial the morning after Pearl Harbor, the New York Times sounded a clarion for American unity and commitment to victory, not just of the nation but of its principles: “The time has come to forget pride of judgment, throw partisanship to the winds and rally to the flag of the United States. Let us close our ranks without a moment’s loss of time. . . . Let every patriot take his stand on the bastions of democracy. We go into battle in defense of our own land, of our present and our future, of all that we are and all that we still hope to be, of a way of life which we have made for ourselves on free and independent soil, the only way of life which we believe to be worth living.”

No wonder we won.

Photo by Kent Nishimura/Getty Images
Photo by Kent Nishimura/Getty Images

After 9/11, plans got underway nearly immediately for a memorial, and commemoration ceremonies have been held on every anniversary. By contrast, in the years immediately after Pearl Harbor, while the date was noted and some ceremonies conducted, winning the war took precedence. In 1943, FDR made this clear when he vetoed a bill declaring December 7 Armed Services Honor Day. In a message to Congress, he explained why: “Dec. 7, two years ago, is a day that is remembered in this country as one of infamy on the part of a treacherous enemy. The day itself requires no reminder, and its anniversary should rather serve to cause all the people of the nation to increase their efforts contributing to the successful prosecution of the war.”

Once victory was accomplished, more expansive anniversary remembrances began. Books and films proliferated. The Arizona memorial opened in 1962; it sees more than 2 million visitors every year. In 1966, on the 25th anniversary, the island had a surprising visitor: 64-year-old Mitsuo Fuchida, the Japanese Navy commander who led the air attack. Now a Christian evangelist, Fuchida had published a book about his conversion, From Pearl Harbor to Calvary, and he spent much time in the United States in his later years. As the decades passed, some Japanese and American veterans of Pearl Harbor gathered together in reconciliation. Others, like Donald Stratton, preferred to stay away. He’d have to forgive the men, like Fuchida, who had killed so many of his friends in the next life, he said, when he would have a better heart.

Fuchida’s saga tells an instructive story about American tolerance—but not the kind we normally hear. A generation commonly branded today as backward-thinking, prejudiced, and provincial welcomed a man who once led a deadly invasion that slaughtered its sons; it even let this former invader’s children live and work in the United States. A generation in its prime of life today, meanwhile, sparing no hosannas to itself for its tolerance and progressive values, needs pointers from the New York Times on how to talk to family members who voted the other way in a presidential election.

“We were not extraordinary men, those of us who fought on that infamous date in December seventy five years ago,” Stratton writes in his magnificent new memoir, All the Gallant Men. “We were ordinary men. What was extraordinary was the country we loved. We loved who she was, what she stood for. We loved her for what she meant to us, and for what she had given to us, even in those meager times. It didn’t matter where you hailed from, whether you came from the mountains or the prairies, a sprawling city or a small coastal town: you loved her. We all did.” That love helped bring this country through the fire.

Seventy-five years later, a small band of survivors, including the 94-year-old Stratton, who will attend with his wife of 66 years, gathers on Oahu. It will be, almost surely, the last milestone anniversary involving participants. From our distant perch, it seems impossible to understand and fully absorb the magnitude of Pearl Harbor: in that vanished world, young men did things that we cannot imagine, and the events themselves, while framed by formidable scholarship and many excellent narrative histories, are also shrouded in myth. We cannot stand where Americans stood then or feel what they felt, but we can remind ourselves that there is no hell on earth like war, no bravery or love of fellows more surpassing than that seen in the armed forces—and no hardship we face now that compares remotely with the darkness that that American generation confronted, across two oceans. It all started on that quiet Sunday morning, 75 years ago. On December 7, pause a moment if you can.

Photo by Getty Images


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