Why we must remember the ‘date which will live in infamy’

Published 8:41 am Monday, December 9, 2019

Seventy-eight years after the attack drew the United States into World War II, a memory that only the oldest Americans share is fading. The attack on Pearl Harbor shocked and outraged the nation and led it into war at a time Congress and the American people had been split on the response to an already embattled world. Shortly before 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, hundreds of Japanese aircraft dove from the sky in a surprise bombing attack on a United States naval base in Hawaii, killing more than 2,400 Americans. The brutal surprise attack halted only after nearly two hours of chaos, death, and destruction.
Ninety minutes later, the American fleet in the Pacific lay in a smoking ruins and the war was won — but not for the Japanese.
Many Tennesseans heard about the attack on a radio news bulletin. Many felt surprise, fear, or anger at the news, and all knew that the attack meant war. No American alive that day ever forgot where they were when they heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor.
A Carter Countian, William Vane Campbell, was among U.S. servicemen killed at Pearl Harbor. He was just 20 years old at the time. Campbell was serving on the USS Oklahoma at Ford Island when it was attacked by numerous torpedoes, sinking the battleship and killing 429 crewmen.
Only 35 men from the USS Oklahoma were identified. Other crewmen’s remains were buried in different locations, including 46 plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. The cemetery, also known as the “Punchbowl” in Honolulu, is where Campbell was buried.
Remains from the Punchbowl began being exhumed in 2015 and on May 9, 2018, Campbell’s remains were positively identified. His remains were returned to Tennessee to rest under a headstone that bears his name.
December 7, 1941 was both “a date which will live in infamy” but also, in another sense, the date that the United States won World War II.
Seventy-eight years later, it is remarkably easy for those who were there to remember the details of that Sunday morning in Hawaii. Flames, noise, diving planes, exploding magazines and smoke, men entombed in their ships — for the generation of World War II, it is a searing memory, an event that thrust America into global conflict.
Most Americans noting the observance in 2019 were not alive on the day of infamy, when Japanese dive bombers and torpedo planes ravaged the battleships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. To remember Pearl Harbor, for the overwhelming majority of people on this anniversary, is to echo a rallying cry and to rediscover a focal point for war, a war very different from the one in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Pearl Harbor has been taught in schools as an example of lack of vigilance and unpreparedness. America wasn’t ready. America was caught napping. Two thousand men had to die to remind a country that it should never let down its guard.
On reflection and after Sept. 11, 2001, it is apparent that Pearl Harbor also taught lessons, long in the learning, about isolationism, xenophobia, honesty and directness in international relationships, and, most pointedly, about the ultimate folly of warfare and violence as a solution to political and economic problems. These lessons are as appropriate today as they were in 1941.
Americans, more than seven decades later, have lost the immediate threat of World War II and the gnawing threat of the Cold War that followed. Now terrorism is of such a concern that Washington has remade the government to prevent the nation from napping again. But the old problem of looking inward instead of outward remains. History repeats itself endlessly and is reason to remember Pearl Harbor.

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