Pearl Harbor and the Enduring Legacy of War

Even in war, not all days are bad days. (Photo: Duke Omara/MEDILL)

By Duke Omara

Seventy-five years ago, on Dec. 7, 1941, a Japanese strike force consisting of six aircraft carriers descended on the territory of Hawaii and unleashed a ferocious aerial raid on the American naval base of Pearl Harbor on Oahu Island.

Less than two hours after the first Japanese aircraft appeared over the horizon, the attack was over and the United States had paid a fearful price. 2,403 Americans, including civilians, were dead. Numerous ships were either sunk or damaged while Japanese losses were much less considerable.

The assault took the United States completely by surprise. The country – in the days leading up to the attack – had been engaged in negotiations with the Empire of Japan to forge a path towards a comprehensive peaceful agreement covering the Pacific region.

“The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific,” President Franklin D Roosevelt said the next day during his address to Congress, in which he asked for a formal declaration of war against the Japanese.

Indeed, on the afternoon of the attack and before the events of that morning had begun to filter back to the U.S. mainland, a Japanese representative handed the U.S. Secretary of State a document that seemed to indicate that peace was still possible between the two countries. But that was not the case.

This act of treachery would push a reluctant U.S. towards a war that would ultimately lead to a near total destruction of Japan. In the process, it would also alter the balance of world power in ways no one at that time could have possibly imagined.

On the anniversary of the attack, and as he prepares to leave office, President Barack Obama spoke of a generation of Americans “who answered the call to defend liberty at its moment of maximum peril.”

“For out of the horrors of war, this Greatest Generation forged an enduring international order, became the backbone of the middle class and powered America’s prosperity,” said Obama.

While no two wars are ever the same – each has its own peculiar, unusual and bitter taste – certain things never seem to change. The chaotic sounds of battle, the fears that must be overcome, the enormous relief when it is finally over, and the enduring camaraderie and friendships formed under fire: these are universal truths born even in the most savage moments of human conflict.

This video included in this article is an attempt to explain what it feels like as seen through the eyes of  one participant – me.

Photo at top: Even in war, not all days are bad days. (Duke Omara/MEDILL)