Pearl Harbor

Smoke billows in the background of a B-17 bomber during the surprise Japanese attack on bases surrounding Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. (National Archives)

Dec. 7, 1941.

It was 77 years ago today when Japanese warplanes from nearby aircraft carriers bombed and destroyed much of the U.S. Navy Pacific fleet while it sat anchored in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Yet, the day still rings hollow in American history, a hole burrowed into our innocence and ignorance alike.

It changed everything

There are few dates of similar significance that so emotionally resonate with Americans, especially among the quickly dwindling generation of seniors still with us who lived through the great human tragedy known as World War II.

That war changed everything about society as the world knew it before and after the war.

It was Pearl Harbor Day, however, that shocked Americans into the fight itself.

The surprise attack early that morning killed 2,403 service members and civilians.

Numerous ships were sunk or seriously damaged and taken out of action. Among the worst losses were the USS Arizona and USS Utah, both forever gone, and the massive loss of life among the crew of the USS Oklahoma when it capsized.

There were 188 American aircraft destroyed. The tremendous loss of naval and air power meant the frightened American West Coast suddenly was vulnerable to attack and invasion.

It was on this day 77 years ago when we found ourselves as a nation thrown into a fight for our life.

Visiting Pearl Harbor

The United States Congress on Aug. 23, 1994, designated this date, Dec. 7, as National Pearl Remembrance Day.

It shouldn’t take an act of Congress to remember Pearl Harbor, but sadly for many Americans today, it does. What is more important, however, is how we remember it.

My Dad is one of the toughest fighters I’ve ever known, having endured through many struggles in this life, ranging from his military service at a remote and frigid radar station on the far reaches of Alaska during the days when nuclear war seemed imminent, to most recently an all-out war with cancer.

Several years ago when illness almost took him away from us much too early, one of the medicines we gave him was a father-son trip to Hawaii, the only state among our great 50 that he had never visited.

He was a novice-turned-pro-am golfer; I was a baseball-minded hacker.

He liked the air conditioner; I liked the open-topped rental Jeep.

But we both are history lovers, and we both especially appreciate military history. So, the No. 1 item on the bucket list easily was a priority trip to Pearl Harbor.

What happened there, and the emotion it elicited in my father, was not the emotion I expected to see.

Bitter hatred

We boarded a boat to make the short journey across the harbor to the memorial that was built over the still oil-leaking sunken wreckage of the USS Arizona entombed underneath.

Most everyone who makes it this close to the scene of such a horrific battle already realizes the solemn approach that respect dictates for those who died here.

Nearby, a modern U.S. Navy submarine slowly sailed into port, its crew on deck and easily seen at attention in full salute as it passed within eyesight of the Arizona.

But it was another ship docked in the harbor that caught our eye, as its huge flag flapped in the gentle wind at the stern of the ship, the end closest to us as we carefully motored by in our small tour boat.

The flag was that of the Rising Sun, or the same flag that invaded this harbor as a bitter and dishonorable enemy on Dec. 7, 1941.

The ship was a Japanese man of war.

The war’s influence

This was decades after World War II had long ago ended. Yet my father, born during the war and growing up hearing local men of the community talk about their nightmarish fight for survival in Japanese prisoner of war camps, sneered at the sight and the very idea of a Japanese warship being allowed into these waters so bloodied once before by the invading navy’s attack.

It was not tears of sadness I saw in his eyes, but a stare of bitter anger.

His words, what few he uttered, matched the raw bluntness of emotions that stained his soul.

“Why?” he kept asking. “Why would we allow that flag to fly in this harbor? I hate the Japanese, and I’ll never have anything else to say about them, for what they’ve done.”

Today, however, is another day.

The Japanese again and again plead with the world for forgiveness, planting peace gardens around the globe; and at home, limiting its military forces to defense-capabilities only as it tries to project a different image from the centuries of war-making it bred throughout history.

Today, Japan is one of our closest allies and also one of our most important, as modern enemies pose new threats to our own nation and to the freedoms we so cherish.

The price to protect those freedoms is dear, and my family may understand that more than most with a bit of strange irony on this day.

A twist of fate

There are two men on this planet that are closer to me than any other in how I admire, love and appreciate them.

One is my father, who I have watched before my very eyes evolve into the man he is today, so certain of where he is going when he leaves this world and this life. He has retired from his work, but not yet God’s.

The other is my son who, I’m proud to say that despite many appealing options as an honor graduate, has decided to make his career in the United States Marine Corps. He began as an enlisted Marine, and then as a Reserve he came home to get his degree at Auburn University, where he met his wonderful wife and later provided me a mighty handsome grandson.

A young lieutenant now, twice decorated already – once for graduating his specialized training as the top graduate of his class; and again for saving the life of a man trapped in a vehicle accident on a remote desert highway – my son left for his first overseas deployment on Thursday.

It will be for three years, much of it spent on assignment away from his base, dispatched to hot spots you read about in today’s headlines.

Yet, how ironic is it that on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 2018, my son is reporting to duty at his new home base – in Japan.

Setting the course

My Dad and I will pray every night for Japan’s safety in a theater filled with uncertainty from nations such as China and North Korea. And, that the Japanese people will befriend him while he fulfills his mission there as an ally and as a young man of a different generation, so eager to embrace all the culture and life that will surround him in this faraway, adventuresome land.

Interesting, isn’t it, how God works?

Thank you, son, for serving so far away from home and a willingness to accept a nation that 77 years ago today was such a hated enemy.

If that can change, maybe other enemies can become friends, both domestically and abroad.

Today, we look back to the sacrifices made and the lessons still being learned. But with young men and women like you serving us, it is more comforting when we look into the uncharted future.

Our hopes and prayers – and our freedoms – fly, sail and march with you.

It is a journey that 2,403 Americans helped set the course, on Dec. 7, 1941.

Troy Turner is editor of the Opelika-Auburn News. He can be contacted at tturner@oanow.com and followed on Twitter @troyturnernews.

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Troy Turner is editor of the Opelika-Auburn News. He previously served as the news editor in New York for the nation's second largest newspaper company, and as the senior editor at several other news entities around the nation. He is an Auburn alum.

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