Day of Infamy has lessons for other generations
BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Shortly before 8 a.m. on a Sunday 71 years ago today, American sailors stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, were beginning a typical day.
Some were still sleeping, while others were eating breakfast or getting ready for church when a first wave of Japanese airplanes launched a sneak attack on battleships moored on the east side of Ford Island.
By the time the attack ended two hours later, more than 2,400 Americans were dead, nearly 1,300 wounded, 188 U.S. aircraft destroyed, and 21 ships destroyed or damaged, including four battleships that sank.
While the attack was a crippling blow to the U.S. Navy, the Japanese failed to realize that what they didn't attack at Pearl Harbor — submarines, destroyers and fuel facilities — would come back to haunt them.
Failure to target fuel tanks gave the Navy the ability to launch the successful battle at Midway seven months later that turned the tide of the war in the Pacific.
Lessons learned from the attack on Pearl Harbor that led to America's involvement in World War II are still discussed today.
State Rep. Alex Atwood, R-St. Simons Island, says Pearl Harbor Day is a significant anniversary for him.
"As the son of a career U.S. Navy chief, I have long been schooled on the importance of remembering and honoring Pearl Harbor Day," Atwood said. "It was truly a watershed moment in the history of our country."
Atwood, who served 34 years in the Marine Corps in active duty and Reserves, enlisted as a private in 1972 and retired as a colonel in 2007.
As a young Marine, Atwood said he was fortunate to serve with a Pearl Harbor survivor whose last name was Zimmerman.
"Although he was quite senior to us, in both rank and age, he nevertheless took the time to sit with the other young Marines as we listened in rapt silence while he explained what he and others accomplished that morning so long ago and so far away," Atwood said. "I have never forgotten him or the lessons he taught us."
One of the many lessons learned from the attack was to maintain eternal vigilance, beginning the day after the attack when President Franklin D. Roosevelt vowed that "this form of treachery shall never again endanger us."
"Vigilance is more than watchfulness," Atwood said.
"It is translating that virtue to action by continuing to provide and support a superb and well-equipped military to protect our country from those that would do us harm."
But it is also much more, he said. "It is standing by principle, both nationally and internationally, when it is not always easy or comfortable to do so," Atwood said.
"It is understanding that as citizens, we are going to disagree, and through this democratic and, yes, at times, often uncomfortable exercise, we remain strong and free as a nation."
The attack also is a reminder of the importance of the Constitution and the laws of the nation, he said.
"It is these things and more that are the lessons of Pearl Harbor," Atwood said. "And it is men like Mr. Zimmerman and his generation of heroes."
Glynn County Commission Chairman Richard Strickland, who served in the Navy from 1960 to 1980, says the attack at Pearl Harbor taught the nation that America had — and still has — enemies that are envious of its freedoms.
"People are going to continue to try to take away the freedoms we as Americans have," he said.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was followed four years later by an American victory that showed the world that Americans can be formidable in battle and compassionate in victory. The nations Americans helped defeat in the war — Japan, Germany and Italy — are now considered among the country's closest allies, Strickland said.
"It shows how much compassion Americans have, the willingness to forgive and move on," he said.
Sheila McNeill, former national Navy League president and executive committee member of the newly created Governor's Defense Initiative, says the attack on Pearl Harbor taught the United States not to underestimate a potential enemy.
"It was a lesson for preparedness and the realization of what could happen to our country," she said.
Retired Army Col. Barrett King of St. Marys spent 37 years in active duty and Reserves until he retired in 2006. He is uncertain how many lessons were learned from the attack.
"The United States was caught napping when we should have been fully alert, especially while wars were already under way in Europe and Asia and had been for more than two years," he said. "We, as a nation, were still feeling comfort behind the safety of oceans between us and the conflict. But that defense proved to be very vulnerable and we were ill-prepared to fight."
King said the nation cannot be disengaged from the rest of the world and must be prepared to deal with any potential crisis with complete knowledge of the roots of the issue.
"I'm not sure we have actually learned the lesson," he said. "We were surprised in Korea in 1950. We didn't understand Vietnam and were surprised by the Tet Offensive in 1968."
King said we have only partially engaged Middle East nations and were surprised by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks.
"We simply have to do better in understanding the world as it really is and we have to truly understand what our national interests really are, so we can provide the resources to protect them from those who would do us harm," he said.
Still, he added, "Pearl Harbor Day is significant to me as a memorial for those who died in the attack on Dec. 7, 1941. It is also a memorial to all U.S. service members who served during the biggest conflict in world history."