Monday represents one of those often-overlooked holidays that, with time, means less and less to many of us.
Dec. 7 is, of course, Pearl Harbor Day. That surprise attack by the Japanese brought America into World War II in a major way. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared war against the Japanese the next day and three days later against Germany and Italy.
The American resolve was about to be tested.
I don’t profess to know a lot about Pearl Harbor and I suspect most of us could say the same. We’re probably familiar from lessons in our history books about the kamikaze pilots who crashed their planes into ships and we probably have all seen photographs of the USS Arizona, which remains sunken in the harbor and has been turned into something of a floating museum.
But what else do we need to know about Pearl Harbor? Here are a few little facts I dug up.
A lot of the ships that were damaged or sunk that day 74 years ago were repaired. The National World War II museum has video footage on display that shows how engineers used pontoons to raise some of the sunken ships and explains that they were taken to dry dock to be more fully repaired.
The attack on Pearl Harbor also decimated the air power of the American military in the region. Japanese pilots bombed a lot of those planes when the attack first began to avoid an air battle. The surprise nature of the attack meant a lot of the American planes were sitting on tarmacs when the action started. The Navy reported losing 92 planes that day, while the Army lost another 77. Another 159 planes were damaged in the fighting.
The wonderful movie Tora, Tora, Tora turns in part on the effort of one pilot to brave the attack in order to get to his plane. By the time he manages to get there and get airborne, there’s not a lot he can do. I don’t know know steeped in truth that movie is, but it’s clear the Japanese held sway in the air that day.
Here’s another interesting note: 2,403 people died in the attack. About half those were on board the USS Arizona. Among the dead were 68 civilians, according to a fact sheet from the National WWII Museum.
All told, some 16 million Americans served in the military during World War II. Most of those still living are in their 90s today and, according to the museum, less than 1 million survive. On average World War II veterans are dying at a rate of almost 500 per day.
According to the Veterans Administration, there are just a tick over 5,000 World War II veterans still alive in North Carolina. The VA projects that all of this nation’s World War II veterans will be gone in about 20 years.
Time, of course, does that to any generation of people. But few generations have experienced what that group of soldiers, sailors and marines did.
As each one of those people passes away, we lose a little bit of our history – the kind of history we can’t recoup by visiting a museum. Veterans who are willing to talk about their experiences often have some of the most interesting stories to tell.
That shouldn’t come as a big surprise. Few true stories can match the power of a tale about fighting against an enemy in a battle on which your life depends. Most of us, in our comfortable homes, can’t imagine it. I know I certainly can’t.
Most of us won’t get Pearl Harbor Day off work as we might Veterans Day or Memorial Day. But it wouldn’t be a bad thing to seek out an aging World War II veteran and ask him to tell you the story of his service. You’re sure to be enthralled for a long time.