Posts Tagged ‘Pearl Harbor’

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Unpreventable?

December 7, 2016

attack on Pearl Harbor

The war that we have carefully for years provoked                                                                                         Catches us unprepared, amazed and indignant.
— Robinson Jeffers from the poem “Pearl Harbor”

Today marks the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a date that President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed “will live in infamy.” On this day in 1941, Pearl Harbor, the primary American base in the Pacific, suffered a devastating surprise strike by the Empire of Japan which resulted in the death of more than two thousand Americans and crippled the critically important Pacific Fleet, plunging us into World War II.

Never before had a foreign attack of this magnitude occurred on American soil causing such loss of life and property. This was the original 9/11, another day that caught us unprepared, amazed, and indignant. And much like 9/11, the way it happened would read like a novel had it not been true. There occurred a perfect storm of unusual circumstances and missed opportunities by the United States, and Japan’s shocking triumph resulted.

Months before, a meeting proposed by Japan’s Prime Minister Konoye to “solve the unsolvable” never happened. Despite the urging of Joseph Grew, the American Ambassador to Japan, the State Department did not share his optimism that such a meeting would prove fruitful and disregarded the viewpoint that Japan’s desperation over the U.S. embargo and sanctions would drive them to war. Prince Konoye subsequently resigned, General Hideki Tojo became both Prime Minister and War Minister, and seven weeks later Pearl Harbor felt the result.

The Japanese government had intended to convey a declaration of war thirty minutes before the attack was to have begun. However, officials at the Japanese embassy in Washington had taken too long to decode the document thus unintentionally delivering it two hours after the fact.

Normally, the entire fleet would not be present in the harbor at one time, a common safety measure taken by the Navy. On this day, though, the entire fleet was in, all concentrated in a small area, providing a perfect target.

Normally, in each of the warships enough compartments would be sealed off making them water-tight in case of attack to prevent the sinking of the giant vessels. That coming Monday an Admiral’s inspection had been expected, so the compartments were left open to facilitate his visit, a decision that had dire consequences.

At 6:40 on the morning of the assault, the crew of the destroyer U.S.S. Ward spotted the periscope of a submarine headed for the entrance to the harbor. It dropped depth charges in an attempt to sink the sub. This information was radioed to Headquarters. It should have been a red flag precipitating an immediate alert. No alert was issued.

At 7:02 the radar station, manned by young and inexperienced personnel, detected a massive flight of airplanes 132 miles from the island and approaching rapidly from the north. Lt. Kermit Taylor, a pilot only on his second day at the station, made the assumption that it was an expected flight of American B-17 bombers from California. In actuality it was the 183 Japanese aircraft bent on delivering a knock-out blow to the American military might in the Pacific. No action was taken.

At 7:55 the first wave of torpedo planes swept in, and the devastation began. During the next two hours, the lightning strike planned by the Japanese — one they thought would entail an intense battle from which most would not return — was successful beyond their expectations.

Could Pearl Harbor have been averted? After 9/11, the same haunting question was asked. More importantly, what about the next Pearl Harbor, the next 9/11? Is complete preparedness even possible?

As former CIA operative and writer Charles McCarry noted, “Richard M. Helms, the first director of Central Intelligence to rise from the ranks, was fond of saying that the CIA had been founded to make sure that there would never be another Pearl Harbor. Underlying this mission impossible was the wishful supposition that an America that knew everything could prevent anything.”

It is doubtful that there could be an America that knows everything. It seems unlikely both because of our free society and expectations of privacy as well as the logistical improbability of such a herculean task. And if that is the case, then the very idea that America can prevent anything is untenable.

So what are we to do? Yes, we must insist that our government, military, and police remain vigilant. The same should be expected of the citizenry. But beyond that, the need to be proactive in eliminating the root causes of the animosities that would rise to such a level of aggression is paramount, another seemingly impossible mission. However, it is one that must be attempted, for not to do so condemns us to a future of Pearl Harbors to come.

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No Ordinary Camps

February 19, 2015

Japanese-american_children

On February 19, 1942, Executive Order 9066 was issued by the President of the United States. It authorized the internment (a less controversial term for imprisonment) of people of Japanese descent for the duration of World War II because of security worries. It had been considered by some to be a necessary precaution to be taken during a time of war. It is now considered to be one of the great miscarriages of justice in the history of this country.

The reason for this mass confinement on the West Coast had more to do with war hysteria compounded by racism, paranoia, and fear than it did any real threat. The 127,000 people who were incarcerated had done nothing wrong. They simply happened to be of Japanese heritage. They were small business owners and teachers and gardeners and stay-at-home moms. Not one crime had been committed. No spying at military installations. No sabotage of public works. No anti-American rhetoric. Sixty percent of them were American-born children and citizens of this country. Nonetheless, they were unceremoniously rounded up and shipped off to camps in remote inhospitable locations in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona, Arkansas, and California.

These were not the camps of our typical American memories. There was no making of brightly colored lanyards during craft time, no canoeing on a lake or splashing around along its shore, no fun-filled days of games and evenings toasting s’mores around a campfire. Instead these camps boasted cramped bare barracks, some of them former horse stalls with spaces in the walls where the brutal winter wind could whistle through. Rationed food and a minimum of coal to provide heat throughout the frigid winters. Overcrowding and a constant lack of privacy. A surrounding fence bristling with barbed wire and armed guards manning 30-caliber machine guns in watchtowers. Not just for two weeks either but all year long, for years on end, taken away from home, friends, and all that had been familiar.

The names of these camps are most likely unfamiliar to the vast majority of Americans who were not affected by this action: Manzanar, Topaz, Tanforan, Heart Mountain. Given the euphemistic name Relocation Centers, these were prison camps plain and simple, and the bitter memories of those camps and what they signified lingered for decades for those who experienced them. They echo still in their descendants who know the stories all too well. Unfortunately, the rest of America knows or cares little about this sad chapter in our history.

And why not, some would say. Let the past be the past.

The past is indeed the past, but its lessons must not be forgotten, for as we have seen all too often throughout human history, the past will otherwise repeat itself.

When I taught eighth grade English, I came upon a story in our literature anthology entitled “The Bracelet.” Written by Yoshiko Uchida who as a young woman had been one of those imprisoned, it told the story of one girl’s life during the internment. The distress caused by this abrupt uprooting of families and the difficult adaptation to their harsh new environment could be felt through the experience of this young girl as she tried to cope with the pain and confusion of an inexplicable injustice.

I was told by my supervisor not to use the story. Apparently the district felt that our fourteen year old students didn’t have the capacity to understand (or perhaps the recognition that they would). I used the story anyway; it seemed wrong not to. Hiding from the unsettling truths of the past does not eliminate them. Learning about them might help prevent future occurrences.

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The vast majority of the students knew little about that period of time. We examined together the mood of the country after the Pearl Harbor attack, discussed the newsreels shown in theaters across the country in the pre-TV era that portrayed the Japanese as ruthless killers, giving them a grotesque vermin-like appearance. We read articles that argued the pros and cons of imprisoning these people, including FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s own opposition to this action. I ended the unit with a persuasive writing composition in which the students could argue either for or against Executive Order 9066. The vast majority were against this mass incarceration.

This was the case each year until 2001 when this academic exercise took on a very real spin. After the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, a new wave of hysteria swept over America, only this time it was not against the Japanese-Americans. What followed was an often ugly reaction against Muslim-Americans (or anyone mistaken for them). I am quite sure that if a new version of Executive Order 9066 had been proposed, great support would have been voiced. The fact that the targets of this outcry had nothing to do with the attack mattered little. If you are a member of a group, you bear the burden of complicity for the action of any member of the group regardless of the superficiality of the connection to it. Such is the nature of stereotype. Suddenly the rational arguments took on a whole new meaning, resulting in a reexamination of what once seemed such an obvious conclusion.

I have no solutions to offer as I reflect on this latest anniversary of the imprisonment of the Japanese-Americans. I wish I did. I will note the following, though. The last prison camp closed in 1946. In 1988, the Civil Liberties Act was signed into law. This legislation offered a formal apology to the Japanese-Americans wrongly incarcerated. It took forty-two years to do so. Restitution was also paid, $20,000 to each surviving victim, this the price deduced for the loss of homes, businesses, dignity, and four years of their lives. The Civil Liberties Act is now displayed alongside the original Executive Order 9066 at the National Archives.

John Tateishi, a Japanese-American involved in the movement which campaigned for redress, said, “You can make this mistake, but you also have to correct it — and by correcting it, hopefully not repeat it again.”

Only time will tell.

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Living in Infamy No More

December 7, 2014

attack on Pearl Harbor

December 7 is a day of tremendous significance in the history of this country. Or at least it should be. On that date in 1941 Pearl Harbor was attacked.

In his famous address, President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed that this was “a date which will live in infamy.”  However, a mere seven decades later, it seems as though this event is perceived as ancient history. Poll any group of Americans under the age of thirty and see how many of them have much of an awareness of this momentous day. It is not even noted on the wall calendar I have.

The attack, which resulted in the death of more than two thousand Americans in only two hours and crippled the critically important Pacific Fleet, plunged us into World War II. That alone should be enough reason to keep it alive in our national consciousness. But even more important are the lessons that it should have taught us as a nation, lessons which seemingly are forgotten as readily as the event itself.

The very nature of war is encapsulated in this attack: the arrogance of nations who would use military aggression to achieve their goals as well as the arrogance of those who think that such a thing could never happen to them; the heroism and sacrifice of ordinary individuals in the face of death; the seemingly insignificant factors — from errors in judgement to plain dumb luck — that can change the course of events; the tragic toll of suffering and human life on both sides that is the inevitable result.

That the impact of powerful events such as this recedes as time goes by is perhaps part of human nature. The generation who lived through that difficult time is dwindling. The following generation who heard the first-hand stories of it are older and no longer commanding the attention they once did. Unless society and its institutions take the responsibility of active preservation, Pearl Harbor and the war it symbolized shall settle beside Verdun and Gettysburg and Bunker Hill on the pages of the history books.

But let us not remember this date in an artificially glorified or superficial way. Instead, it should be a time of acknowledgment and reflection, a day set aside to consider both where we were and where we are now as a nation and a world. Let us honor those who served for the greater good and those who perished in its defense. But let us also understand well how the continual ebb and flow of national interests and power can lead to conflict and its extreme consequences. Let us do this in the hope that we can one day eliminate the necessity for such days of remembrance.

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Tick, Tick, Tick

December 7, 2011

Today is December 7. It is 2011, and I fear “the day that will live in infamy” that transpired seventy years ago may be in a coma. So it is with the interminable list of other such infamous days from Cannae to Borodino to Antietam to Hiroshima.  This is a shame because, for many reasons, these are days that should not be forgotten. We should honor the fallen and acknowledge the sacrifice of all who served, but it should also be yet another reminder of the far deeper issue of war itself.

On this day in 1941, Pearl Harbor joined the list. The primary American base in the Pacific suffered a massive surprise attack by the Empire of Japan. Never before had such an attack occurred on American territory. Never before had America suffered such a loss of life and property in a foreign attack on its soil. This was the original  9/11.

And much like 9/11, the way it happened would read like a novel had it not been true. The series of fateful events that included miscues, missed opportunities, incompetence, and indecision on both sides set off a chain of events with effects that resonate until this very day. At least, for those who care to remember.

Those Americans who lost family members are no doubt aware as are those who were plunged into war as a result of this day. Their ranks are dwindling rapidly, though. Those Americans of Japanese descent are also aware, for one of the greatest breaches in American justice crashed upon them in this day’s aftermath. Their ranks are dwindling as well.

That leaves the rest of us. So why should we care? It’s history. Times have changed.

Perhaps we should be more in tune with history.

America and indeed the whole world have seen a cycle of war repeated for as long as there has been history. People have suffered devastation at the hands of other nations because of greed, power, xenophobia, misunderstanding, and fear. National, ethnic, and religious groups have been vilified to justify their oppression or destruction. The only thing that changes is the time and the place. The lessons that should have been learned from these past experiences are many. Humankind has not been a very good learner.

I realize the need to protect oneself is sometimes necessary. But the lessons are more elemental than knowing one’s enemies and keeping vigilant; the way to peace is the final realization that it is not us versus them but rather us versus us. The huge task of eradicating the artificial boundaries between the people of Earth is the critical need; how to accomplish it is the ultimate problem.

And what now? A few moments spent reading a newspaper or watching the news should answer that. How many “hot spots” do we need? How many areas of the globe on the verge or already immersed in violence must be present?

There are those who say it is in our nature as humans to do this. Maybe they are right. Others hold onto hope that the inhabitants of this small blue planet will some day come to their senses. I pray they are right. But as science and technology create more numerous and powerful weapons than have ever before existed and nationalistic or religious dogma have fanned hatred, perhaps hope is the only weapon that we have to counteract them. But this hope must turn into commitment and then to action to halt our march toward the potential annihilation of our species. It is up to us, to all of us, to make this decision. How much time do you think we have? The answer to this question is mostly ignored or avoided in fear of what it might be. That is a shame too, for the very future of the world may just be at stake.