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Pearl Harbor 70 Years Later

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that started World War II.  At 7:55 am on that Sunday morning 183 Japanese aircraft appeared over the coral waters of the US Naval Base, our largest military facility in the Pacific.  Six US battleships were sitting ducks in their berth, the so-called Battleship Row adjacent to Ford Island.  Three were sunk, along with another battleship, moored nearby, and one more was heavily damaged.


Overall the losses in the attack were staggering:  eighteen ships sunk or heavily damaged, 347 planes destroyed or damaged and 2,403 Americans killed.  It truly was as President Franklin Roosevelt told the nation “a day that will live in infamy”.


It has been said of the United States that it sometimes takes a catastrophic event to bring the nation together.  Pearl Harbor galvanized us as no other event in American history.  This was not lost on Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the leader of the attack, who told his subordinates:  “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with terrible resolve”.


And so it was.  It took four years of fighting but the war was truly won with the extraordinary growth and power of America’s industrial might. The war was won by a generation labeled by Tom Brokaw as America’s Greatest.  They returned from the war to spur an unprecedented era of growth and prosperity in America.  American society was transformed in the period between 1946 and 1960.


Many of the returning veterans took advantage of the GI Bill to go to college.  The GI Bill was one of the most important pieces of legislation in the post-war era.  It transformed America from a country, like Europe, where only the elite went to college, to a country where higher education became accessible to many working class young men.


Sadly, the generation of Americans who served at Pearl Harbor and in the Second War is fast leaving the stage.  Those who were 18 in December of 1941 are now 88.  Those still with us are a hardy group.  I was reminded of that earlier this fall when the Portland Symphony Orchestra welcomed the US Naval Academy Men’s Glee Club to Portland for two concerts.


At both concerts World War II veterans were given special recognition.  I was surprised to see more than a dozen in each concert stand to receive the tribute from Music Director Robert Moody.  One who stood was none other than George H.W. Bush, 41st President of the United States and also the youngest Naval Aviator to serve in World War II.  It was a special moment.


So today let us reflect on a historic day in American history.  The attack on Pearl Harbor was a call to arms for America – a call the Greatest Generation took up with a resolve for which their Nation is eternally grateful.