It was a day that began just as every day begins and yet it would become a day that would forever live on in American history. It was the day that the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service would surprise the American Navy stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. It was the day that the United States would formally enter into World War II. It was the day that 188 U.S. Aircraft were destroyed, all eight of the U.S. Battleships in the harbor were damaged, with four sunk, as well as other military ships or cruisers. The loss of life was staggering with 2,403 Americans dying while an additional 1,178 were wounded. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president at the time, would say to the American people when he announced the attack on Pearl Harbor, that December 7, 1941 would be a date which will live in infamy…his reasons for this were that the attack happened without a declaration of war by Japan…with no warning, and would go on to be considered a war crime during the Tokyo Trials.
When I went back to school to work on my business degree, I had the privilege of taking a couple history courses at BCC now known at Eastern Florida State College. Even though I was required to take two history courses, I still considered it a privilege for all I learned in those classes. The most memorable was the assignment to write a paper on a period of history that included the time during World War II. I chose for my topic: Pearl Harbor. This was a deliberate choice on my part as I was aware of two Pearl Harbor survivors, both now deceaced, who attended our church and I was hoping they would allow me to interview them for my paper.
The first one I interviewed was only four years old and her family lived in Hawaii when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred. Even at such a young age, she remembered. She remembered hiding under the table. She remembered for days after the attack, her mom covering the windows so no light would shine out into the darkness. Light that would alert anyone that someone was living in the home. She remembered her fear when the attack happened thinking the world was ending. She remembered, even though she was only four when the bombing occurred.
The second, was Billie Smith who was a pilot in the United States Air Force and stationed at Pearl Harbor. When I asked him if he would allow me to interview him, he hesitated. Then said, “let me think about it.” Then he let me know he would permit the interview. I was ecstatic! I wanted to hear his front-line experience. Little did I know how much this interview would change me and my perspective on war. And so, we met. We talked for a while about some of his exploits during the war. He shared that he had served in both the European and Pacific theaters during World War II and then served in Korea. After we had talked for a while I asked if it would be ok if instead of asking specific questions, would he mind just telling me about the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. The following is an abbreviated version of the story he shared with me that day:
“The attack happened in the morning. So, we were all just waking up. I was in the mess hall having a cup of coffee. My first of the day when we heard the bombs. We all jumped up and ran out to see what was going on. We ran into a war zone. The Japanese planes were flying overhead some so low we could clearly see the markings on the planes and in some cases the faces of the pilots. We knew immediately they were Japanese. There had been no warning, no chatter about a possible attack. We were caught with our pants down. Those of us who were pilots or gunners began running to our planes as we dodged the strafing bullets raining down on us from above. There were dead, or badly injured men everywhere. When I got to my plane my gunner had reached it first and gotten into the tail…but the Japanese, after bombing the ships were targeting the planes and I watched in horror as my plane was hit, caught on fire, and saw my friend trapped in the tail. We couldn’t get to him as the bullets from the planes continued to rain down on us…I was helpless…the only thing I could do was watch as my friend died, trapped in the tail of the plane surrounded by flames.”
Billie stopped there. He apologized and said he really wasn’t able to talk about it anymore. I quietly thanked him for sharing what he did. I also came away from our time together with a profound sadness as it pertains to war and a deep appreciation for the high cost that has been paid for the many freedoms we all enjoy each and every day.
I don’t believe we truly understand the depth of anguish our soldiers undergo as they serve this country, we call America. We do not understand the trauma they experience as they see death all around them. As citizens, we take too much for granted. We have come to understand our freedoms as rights we deserve, and we seem to be unwilling to take the time to understand the true cost of the freedoms we have.
And so, on this day, December 7th, a day that has, as President Roosevelt predicted, lived on in infamy, I salute all those who have given their life in service to our country. I salute all those who continue to recognize that freedom isn’t free. I remember and honor those who have defended our freedoms throughout our short 256 year history as a nation.
But here’s the thing: Those freedoms were defended on behalf of all people not just a chosen few. And there are too many in our nation who do not enjoy the same freedoms and who are discriminated against on a regular basis. When we participate in any activity that discriminates against any person for any reason, we do a great disservice to all the men and women who died defending our freedoms. And the ironic thing about racism as that as soon as we say we are not racist…we are because everyone has biases…everyone.
So for me, when I remember Pearl Harbor, I remember the man who shared how he could only stand by and watch helplessly as his friend died by the hands of the Japanese. A man who would lovingly welcome people of Japanese descent into his family. I remember this survivor of Pearl Harbor who didn’t let the atrocities of war determine how he treated people of color. I remember this amazing man and how he lived a life of grace and mercy to all and I honor him and all service men and women for the sacrifices they have made defending the freedoms I enjoy every day. I remember and honor them every time I treat all people with respect and dignity.