COMMENTARY: Remembering the attack on Pearl Harbor

If you ask the average American when World War II started, the most likely answer is Dec. 7, 1941. That, of course, is the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

Today is the 75th anniversary of that attack. If you wish a sobering reminder of it, fly yourself to Honolulu, take the Navy launch out to the USS Arizona entombment. Last time I was there, the oil was still oozing up from the ship, which is easily visible below the water surface in about 25 feet of water. Some 1,177 sailors died, while 400 survived. Most of the dead are still entombed in the wreck.

Five years ago, we found ourselves in London and writing on this same subject. A visit to the Churchill War Rooms below ground under the British Admiralty reminded us of what Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill wrote in his memoirs. He said he went to sleep the night of Dec. 7, 1941, and slept soundly for the first night in several years, safe in the knowledge that with the United States fully in the war, the British would win in the end.

Like my uncle a few months later, Churchill didn’t know when the allies would win. Just that we would.

Reid K. Beveridge

Reid K. Beveridge

My father’s birthday was Dec. 7 and that Dec. 7, 1941, was a Sunday. My mother was hosting a birthday party on the occasion of his 45th birthday. As such, they and their friends were not paying attention to the news. In fact, one of the guests remarked on arriving that he had heard that the Japanese had attacked Hawaii. They didn’t’ believe him.

Until, that is, the meal was over and they turned on the radio — no TV then, of course. President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress the next day and coined the term “Day of Infamy.” Congress quickly declared war on Japan. But not on Germany. It was not at all clear before the Pearl Harbor bombing that the Congress would ever declare war on Germany. Peace activists had been protesting any such notion for more than a year. Their assertion was that the United States had no beef with Germany or Hitler.

World War II did not go well for the United States nor the allies in that first year or so. The Japanese quickly invaded the Philippines, then a U.S. possession, and overran them. Japan then marched island-by-island toward Australia, reaching New Guinea and Singapore and overrunning Java (now a part of Indonesia). Further, it is often forgotten that Japan invaded China in 1937, which is the real start of World War II, not the later dates in Poland or Pearl Harbor.

It was partially due to the ferocity of the fighting in New Guinea in 1943 that the U.S. military learned of Japanese attitudes toward surrender. This explains the Bataan Death march, in which the Japanese reviled the American soldiers for surrendering. The Japanese always, or nearly always, fought to the death, viewing surrender as requiring hari kari.

Like Churchill, Americans did not know how long World War II would last. My aforementioned uncle sailed out of San Francisco in March 1942, having patriotically enlisted. Years later, I asked him when, as he heard that Gen. Douglas MacArthur would be his commander-in-chief, when he thought the war would be over.

“1949 at the earliest” was his instant answer. His first stop was New Guinea. This the place where American GIs often stood for days up to their waists in water as foxholes flood from the incessant rains. And, of course, fought off the constant Japanese assaults trying to eject the Americans from the island.

In some way, it’s a wonder they did, for, truth be told, the U.S. Army wasn’t very well trained in late 1941. The mobilization of the National Guard in 1940 and the beginning of the military draft that year had more than doubled the Army’s size. But that very explosion in size created all sorts of readiness problems in itself — the subject of another essay, not this one.

In fact, the Germans never did think much of American soldiery. Historically, the Germans prided themselves on a professional army. They viewed we Americans as amateurs, which we were in many respects. Between 1918 and 1940, the idea of a professional military was alien to most Americans. Pay was low and prestige was lower.

So as we commemorate the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, it is well to remember just how ill-prepared the United States was. And how many American boys (mostly men back then) died as a result.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Reid K. Beveridge is a retired Army and Delaware National Guard brigadier general and resides at Broadkill Beach.

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