Sunday, December 7, 2014

Infamy passing

It has been three years since the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association officially disbanded due to the advanced age and ill health of its remaining members. Their dwindling numbers at the commemorations is a tangible reminder that the event that defined my parents' world -- and to a great extent mine as well -- is on the verge of receding into history. Within a decade, or maybe two, all who remember the worldwide conflagration will be gone, or entombed in rapidly failing bodies.

Image from here

I don't think we can imagine what December 7, 1941 meant to this country. We like to make comparisons to 9-11, and the general idea is probably similar, but the scale of the attack and ensuing conflagration make 9-11 look like a convenience store robbery by comparison. No one said, "Go back to the mall and try to live normal lives" on December 8th. The nation transformed itself in a matter of months into a weapons factory of almost unbelievable productivity. Factories were converted (in many cases literally overnight) from making cars, stoves, or clothing to production of bombers, artillery, and parachutes. Millions of men left farms, factories, and offices to join the fight, and millions more women shed their aprons to replace the men at work, or wear different uniforms.* Everyone was expected to do their part, and those who shirked were labeled bums, or cowards. Roosevelts and Kennedys fought and died with everyone else, though they probably wore better fitting uniforms than most.

More Americans died in an average two-week period -- and on a few unfortunate single days -- than were killed in ten years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army Air Corp (forerunner of the Air Force) lost about 80 heavy bombers and over 600 men in a single raid. Over a million Germans and Russians are believed to have died at Stalingrad alone, and best estimates are that more than 20 million Soviet citizens and soldiers died during the course of the war.

When it was over, much of the industrialized world was in ruins, with the notable exceptions of the United States and Soviet Union. It is no coincidence that those two nations dominated commerce and politics for the next half century. The first salvos of the Cold War were fired even before the war in Europe was concluded, and more than one Allied leader recommended pushing the Soviets back within their borders. If America were not still embroiled in a vicious battle in the Pacific, they might have tried it. As it is, some strategic German cities and facilities were bombed in the closing days of the war expressly to deny them from the communists.

I spent several days recently with a colleague who grew up not far from Berlin. His parents were about the same age as mine, and the war shaped their lives absolutely. The habits they formed were imprinted so strongly that they have not faded to this day.  For instance, if there is food on their table it must be eaten before anyone gets up. Leftovers are not a luxury they could afford.

I try to take a few minutes to reflect every year on the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Some years go better than others.) It is a day commemorating sacrifice and war, situated between major American holidays of gratitude and peace. The people who experienced that war learned to be thankful just for living another year. Peace was a tangible goal to work toward, not an abstract concept discussed in church.

The Pearl Harbor generation shaped our world, and our expectations of our world, for better and worse. The world -- and Fox News -- will miss them.

* This surge of responsibility, and disillusionment when it was unceremoniously taken away at war's end, planted the seeds for the Women's Liberation movement.


  1. Well said. I feel inexplicably and unjustifiably proud of my great uncle who was stationed in Pearl Harbor before, during and after the attack.

    1. My thanks to your uncle. I think many of our generation grew up with an inexplicable pride passed down from our parents and theirs -- not to mention the movies and TV. My grandfather had one picture of each of his children on his bedside chest. The one he chose for my two uncles was their picture from the Merchant Marine during WWII. Some of the others changed, but those two remained constant.

  2. a helpful, and thoughtful, remembrance. my father-in-law -- now dead -- was a survivor of Bataan. a remarkable man. they are going quickly. watching my mother as she prepared to check out -- the night before she entered the hospital, writing checks to pay her bills, including her life insurance which wasn't due for another month. that generation built us... and i feel unworthy to carry the torch they passed us. a good reminder to step up my game... thanks...

    1. If we feel unworthy, it is because they built us that way. And left us well enough off to be slackers. Not an excuse -- just the facts. I believe people rise to the demands of their time, and we are the lucky beneficiaries of their misfortune. Still, it's hard not to be awed.