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Pacific War Stories: Pearl Harbor, 71 Years Later

Bombing of Pearl Harbor, reprinted in Pacific War Stories. National Archives, 80G-32424.

I was on North Atlantic patrol before the war started, in Battleship Division Three, onboard the USS New Mexico. I think we were about 300 miles off the coast of England when the officer of the deck got on the horn and shouted down, “The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.” I was sitting next to a chief petty officer who said, “Boy, that guy is in real, real trouble.” The impregnable Pearl Harbor? He really thought the guy was kidding. He said, “The Japanese couldn’t attack Pearl Harbor.” And then all of a sudden, on comes the skipper, and he told us all about it. So we immediately turned around and headed back.

So begins the firsthand account of George Thoma, a WWII Navy veteran, as recorded by editors Rex Allan Smith and Gerald A. Meehl in the collection Pacific War Stories. That volume, originally published by Abbeville Press in 2004 and recently released for the first time as an e-book, compiles the recollections of the survivors of the Pacific theater of the Second World War, which encompassed some of the most hellish combat environments any soldier has ever endured. The curtain on that theater was raised, of course, at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, which the Japanese air force attacked on December 7, 1941.

The anniversary of that event is this Friday; the date that FDR said would “live in infamy” is now 71 years in the past. To most living Americans and Japanese, the bombing of the harbor is pure history, a fact to be memorized in grade school. But to those few for whom the attacks are a living memory, the wounds can still be terribly raw. Smith and Meehl recount a fraught meeting of the American Pearl Harbor Survivors nine years ago:

Back over at the public ceremony, a contingent of Japanese Pacific war veterans was in attendance, including Yuji Akamatsu. On the morning of December 7, 1941, at the controls of a torpedo bomber, he took off from the Japanese aircraft carrier Kaga, on his way to attack Pearl Harbor. Sixty-two years later, on December 7, 2003, he returned to Pearl Harbor at ground level, having last seen it skimming twenty feet above its calm waters and dropping his torpedo on a track to the USS Nevada. The American Pearl Harbor Survivors had mixed feelings about seeing him sitting there in his wheelchair, exuding a weakened version of his former torpedo pilot persona, but still smiling and shaking hands and signing programs. Several of the American veterans went over to greet him, through his interpreter, and shake his hand. Others didn’t want to get near him. “I don’t have anything to say to that guy,” one Pearl Harbor Survivor stated gruffly, while a few others around him nodded in agreement.

The attacks, which killed 2,402 Americans and wounded 1,282, are now in fact so infamous that it’s hard to grasp how shocking they were in the event. Few Americans had heard of the harbor itself (Hawaii was not yet a U.S. state), and while 52% of the country at the time believed war with Japan was imminent, a vocal and politically powerful minority still wanted nothing to do with the conflict that had engulfed Europe and Asia. Most experts even within the U.S. military believed that hostilities with Japan, if initiated, would begin in the Phillipines; hardly anyone believed the war would be brought so violently to our doorstep. In Pacific War Stories, Navy veteran Al Hahn remembers:

I heard about Pearl Harbor when I was in Longmont, Colorado, and I was working for a doctor there. I was over at one of his neighbors’, and he said, “Say, did you hear what happened to the United States naval fleet?” “No, I didn’t hear a thing.” And he said, “The Japanese bombed them at Pearl Harbor.” “Pearl Harbor,” I said, “where is that? Never heard of it.”

Reading this, one wonders what percentage of American schoolchildren could now say with certainty where the harbor is located. The widely panned 2001 movie Pearl Harbor notwithstanding, the attacks are no longer as prominent a feature of America’s psyche: they are most often discussed nowadays by analogy with the trauma of 9/11, which burns far brighter in the public consciousness. Still, it’s harrowing primary documents like those in Pacific War Stories that forge our strongest link to the event, securing our best hope that Pearl Harbor will remain “heard of,” and the witnesses to its tragedy, heard from.

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Click here to learn more about Pacific War Stories, published by Abbeville Press.