Thursday, December 8, 2011

A day of infamy

Yesterday, December 7, 2011,was the seventieth anniversary of what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called seventy years ago today, “a date that will live in infamy.” This particular anniversary of the Japanese attacks on the United States Pacific fleet in Hawaii and elsewhere brings to mind many things.

First I think about my friend’s father who was aboard a U.S. destroyer docked at Pearl Harbor that day. His family knew little more than that until very late in his life when he finally began to speak of the horrors of the experience. I also think about my uncle who enlisted seventy years ago today, and my recently widowed grandmother who was suddenly forced to raise my ten year old mother alone.

More than two thousand American servicemen and women died on that day. 400,000 plus would follow them in the coming four years in places like Guadalcanal, Normandy, Iwo Jima, Ardennes, and Corregidor. But that number was paled by the number of people from other countries who perished. Russia alone lost over 23 million, almost 14 percent of its population.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened had there been no Japanese attack. I think about the terrible injustice that took place in this country after the attacks as Japanese American citizens were rounded up and forced into concentration camps. Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton more than forty years later addressed the issue with official apologies. The United States’ presence in WWII tipped the balance of power and ultimately turned the tide in the war. Had we not entered when we did, it’s difficult to say what the world would look like today. One could say that the events of that day changed the course of human history as much if not more than any other day in history. Perhaps the most significant direct result of the attacks was that it lead to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the dawn of the nuclear age.

But mostly on this anniversary, I think about the passage of time. When I first became aware of World War II, I learned about it first hand from people who lived through it. Those folks were for the most part the age I am today. Yesterday at the anniversary ceremony at the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, there were about 120 veterans who survived the attacks. Doing the math you realize that all of them are now around 90 years old, if not more. Sooner than I care to think about, there will be no one left in that austere group.

Twenty years ago yesterday, on the fiftieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor, we celebrated my Aunt Gertrude's 91st birthday. Driving to dinner, the subject of the anniversary came up and Gert said: "Fifty years ago, gosh it seems like yesterday." We all laughed. But twenty years later, that moment seems like yesterday and now I'm beginning to understand what she meant.

Which reminds me of this from the poet Henry Austin Dobson:
Time goes, you say? Ah no! 
Alas, Time stays, we go.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is perhaps more apropos today than it was in 2011. In a short article I read in our local paper yesterday, it stated that for the first time, none of the remaining handful of Pearl Harbor veterans in our community were asked to speak or appear at any functions. It saddens me that the attack on Pearl Harbor and WW II will soon be remembered only in the history books.