Lessons we can learn from response to Pearl Harbor

Smoke billows from the USS Arizona after a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in this photo from Dec. 7, 1941. The attack triggered the U.S. entry into World War II.
Smoke billows from the USS Arizona after a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in this photo from Dec. 7, 1941. The attack triggered the U.S. entry into World War II. U.S. Navy file

There are moments when, despite our best efforts, fear overtakes us. Today, on this “date which will live in infamy,” we recall one such dark moment even as we confront fearful times of our own.

Americans were stunned on Dec. 7, 1941, when 350 Japanese warplanes swarmed over Pearl Harbor, launching torpedoes, dropping bombs and firing machine guns. The surprise attack sank six warships, killed some 2,400 military personnel and 70 civilians and wounded another 1,175.

As Californians were sitting down to a late breakfast or arriving for church services, the news was just reaching the mainland. And the news grew worse with every passing hour.

Not only had the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they simultaneously hit Hong Kong, Guam, the Philippines, Wake Island, Malaya, Shanghai, Thailand and Midway. The world seemed to be in flames. It was a fearful day for a nation sitting glued to its radios.

Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day isn’t just for those who can recall the attack that drove the United States into World War II. It is a day we all can use, hopefully, to reflect not only on the attack that marked a generation but also on America’s ability to set aside any great fear and mount a response. In 1941, that response helped save the world.

Today, many among us feel a similar fear. We fear those who would attack us from outside, such as the Islamic State, and we fear those who might attack us from within, such as those responsible for the massacre in San Bernardino on Wednesday and many other such inexplicable attacks.

Perhaps that is why it is crucial, this day, to consider the response that arose from our nation after Pearl Harbor was shattered. The “greatest generation” did not cower, though they were undoubtedly afraid. They did not become paralyzed by debate, though it is certain they didn’t know exactly what to do. And they did not wait, with many arriving at recruiting offices the very next day.

The horror of war was visited upon the United States on this day 74 years ago in a dastardly, vicious, brutal attack. Even some of the Japanese who planned it knew America would respond with a “terrible resolve.”

They were right then; we hope the same would be true of America today. The prospect of attack by terrorists, domestic or otherwise, is intensely frightening. While our military response is measured, we all must rise to the occasion – with the strength to set aside fear, the courage to act and the determination to follow through.

We should be making certain that those dangerous enough to be on government watch lists do not have access to guns, as many do now. We should redouble our commitment to our allies standing united against terrorists across the world. We should be setting aside personal political agendas and trying to develop a sane approach to the ownership of weapons capable of killing and maiming people by the dozen.

That’s what a previous generation did following the attack on Pearl Harbor, their actions blunting the terror of their time and guaranteeing freedom for generations to come.

Let’s hope we have the courage to follow the example they provided.