Photos and text by Edward and Dallas Nagata White
Seventy years ago, a quiet winter morning much like today’s hung over Pearl Harbor. War had been ongoing in the Pacific since 1937, and in Europe since 1939. Despite the surrounding conflict, the United States and its citizens sought neutrality; war had yet to reach our shores, and there was no desire or expectation of involvement in any of the conflicts. The attack came out of the blue, both literally and metaphorically.
On Dec. 7, 1941 at 7:48 a.m., sailors in Pearl Harbor noticed fighters in the sky. Initially, most of the island’s military presumed that it was an exercise — it couldn’t possibly be an attack… America wasn’t at war.
Then the bombs began to drop.
Though there is still debate as to when World War II precisely began and ended, Dec. 7, 1941 is universally recognized as the point when the ongoing global conflicts began merging and becoming a single war — a date that will live in infamy, as then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared.
On that day 70 years ago, the Japanese sought to intimidate America by crippling the Pacific Fleet, and failed. On that day, the sailors and soldiers of Hawaii stood up and fought back, setting the tone for a nation newly at war.
On Dec. 7, 2011, we attended the 70th anniversary memorial ceremony of the attack on Pearl Harbor to pay our respect to those few survivors alive today, and those still entombed under the harbor’s still waters. It was a momentous occasion, widely attended by both survivors, family members, and officials from both the U.S. and the rest of the world.
Today’s memorial carried an air of reflection, perhaps more today than in other years. In addition to being the 70th anniversary of the attacks, 2011 also saw the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The similarities between the two events and the timing were highlighted by both an open letter from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’ address.
Ed asked survivors about the parallels between December 7 and September 11, and how they felt about the wars that occurred in the interim. The answers ranged from some survivors proclaiming that the nation must remain strong against dictators to preserve freedom to others feeling at a loss, as they had originally felt theirs had been the war to end all wars. All felt thankful for those that had laid down their lives then and now to preserve the freedom of America and her people.
To add to the poignancy of the occasion, William Muehleib, President of the National Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, announced the disbanding of the association, citing the dwindling members. As if to drive the point home, upon returning home, I found an obituary announcing the death of a Pearl Harbor survivor who had been unable to attend today’s memorial.
During the ceremony, we felt particularly touched at the Japanese presence. Once a hated enemy, Japan has since become an invaluable ally in the Pacific. Though we spotted no Japanese Pearl Harbor pilots, there was a large delegation of Japanese religious groups who had come to offer prayers of peace and remembrance sitting intermingled with the various survivors.
After the ceremony, the survivors were ferried to the USS Arizona memorial to pay their respect to their brothers in arms, followed by the Japanese delegation, who were joined by one World War II veteran who stayed behind.
We were incredibly honored to celebrate the lives of these courageous individuals and remember the symbol of America’s will to fight when called upon to do so. This will likely be the last milestone of this caliber for many of the survivors, and we were glad to be there to capture it.
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