Pearl Harbor: Why remembering matters, 71 years later
NEW YORK -- The airplanes were so low, the red dots on their gray wings were easily visible from the ground.
The image of those planes swarming overhead has stayed with U.S. Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka in the 71 years since Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, they say. Both Hawaii Democrats, teenagers at the time, witnessed the attack and then fought in World War II.
Inouye and Akaka, both 88 years old, are among three World War II veterans in the Senate, along with U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D -- N.J.).
Only about 1.5 million of the 16 million soldiers who served in World War II are still alive, with nearly 700 of them dying per day, according to the National World War II Museum. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates there will be no surviving World War II veterans by 2036.
Collective memories of Dec. 7, 1941 -- that "date that will live in infamy," as President Franklin Roosevelt put it in an address to Congress the next day -- are fading as decades pass, but that sunny Sunday morning remains vivid for those who witnessed the attack.
Akaka was a senior at Kamehameha School for Boys, its sprawling campus in the hills above Honolulu on the island of Oahu.
"Out of my dormitory window I watched all this smoke and was able to see the planes diving in at Pearl Harbor," Akaka said. "I was able to see -- and I didn't know what it was until later of course -- that they were torpedoing the battleships in a row, and how some of them kind of keeled over.
It wasn't until another cluster of planes flew overhead, en route to bomb the Marine Corps base at Kaneohe Bay, that Akaka and his classmates figured out what was going on.
"When the squadron passed over us, we saw those red balls on the wings," Akaka said. "That's when we knew it was the Japanese attacking."
Gen. Walter Short declared martial law, taking over the government and mobilizing reserve troops, including the boys at Kamehameha.
"We got orders to put a unit together and guard the hills in back of school because they were expecting paratroopers to land," Akaka said. "They wanted to have a unit up in the mountains to protect the water. We took our own rifles and we moved up into the hills."
With Hawaii under military governance, other dramatic changes followed.
By February, President Roosevelt had signed an executive order that authorized the government to round up and imprison more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry -- most of them Americans -- during the war. Inouye, a Japanese American, has said in past interviews that he was angry that the government felt he was "part of the enemy."
Inouye, whose right arm had to be amputated without anesthesia after he was shot on a battlefield in Italy, went on to win the Medal of Honor.
Both of U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa's grandfathers were among the interned, one at Honouliuli Internment Camp in Hawaii and the other at a camp in Santa Fe.
"The one who went to the mainland was there for most of the war," said Hanabusa (D -- Hawaii). "He was the plantation fisherman and he had a boat. The boat was confiscated. There was concern about just the fact that he had access to the sea."
Hanabusa grew up hearing stories from her grandfathers about their time in captivity. One became a cook in the camp where he was held, and talked about trading bread for rice with German Americans and Italian Americans who also were interned. At the same time, the sons of those who were locked up were sent to war.
"It was a country that declared that they were not equal, that felt they were the enemy, and yet they fought -- maybe some to prove them wrong but others because they felt it was their patriotic duty," Hanabusa said. "Quite honestly, I sometimes wonder if we're still made out of that same stuff. There's a Japanese word that probably best describes it: shikata ga nai. What it means is basically, ‘That's the way it is.' I think that's best explained a lot of how the Japanese felt. This was war."
It's a sentiment Hanabusa hears a lot when she meets veterans. As a member of the Armed Services Committee representing a state with a huge military presence, she's often invited to events where service members gather. Earlier this year, she met the son of the artist who designed the memorial at Pearl Harbor. He told her he wanted it to be "a lasting remembrance of peace."
After tragedies, there's often a sense of urgency to remember -- or more precisely, to never forget. Inouye calls the attack on Pearl Harbor the morning that "all hell broke loose," but worries that the history is slipping away.
"Fifty years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a national poll was taken among high school seniors in the United States, and the question was a very simple one: What is the significance of Dec. 7, 1941?" Inouye said as he gave testimony in support of congressional funding for a Sept. 11 memorial last year. "Less than half of those polled could respond. They have no idea."
For lawmakers, remembering also means realizing that making a legislative decision means "consequences are paid by others," Hanabusa said.
"What other kinds of laws have been passed that infringe upon people's rights that were reactionary -- and how much of it is viewed like, ‘If you don't do it, you're not patriotic?'" Hanabusa said. "We're still debating issues related to the Patriot Act. Those are issues that are still there. And you wonder every time, did we forget?"
Adrienne LaFrance is a reporter in the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University and a Honolulu Civil Beat contributor based in Cambridge, Mass., and Washington, D.C.
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