Pearl Harbor: A Day to Remember

It was indeed a day that, in the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, would forever “live in infamy.” It was a day of death and devastation, heartbreak and despair.

December 7, 1941.

Pearl Harbor.

Pearl Harbor
Admiral Nimitz Museum in Fredericksburg, Texas

Japanese warplanes, hauling bombs across the sea, roared out of the skies on a sleepy Sunday morning, and all hell rained down on the shores of Hawaii. In its wake would be launched America’s finest hour.

On that Sunday afternoon, Admiral Chester Nimitz was attending a concert in Washington, D.C., when he was unexpectedly paged by the President. Roosevelt told him that America had been attacked. America was a war. America had no other choice

Admiral Nimitz, over a telephone, without any pomp or circumstance, was named Commander of the Pacific Fleet. Japan could not be allowed to prevail, he knew. America must endure. Nimitz never flinched.

On Christmas Eve of 1941, Nimitz flew to Hawaii to assume his new command. All around him, he discovered a spirit of dejection and defeat, the likes of which he had never encountered before.

Eyes were hollow.

Hearts were heavy.

American ships, American sailor, lay in the midst wreckage at the bottom of the sea. On Christmas morning, he toured the Pearl harbor and witnessed a sight that would never leave him or his psyche. Sunken battleships. Naval vessels lying in ruin. A harbor blocked by twisted and molten metal. Good men gone. Some would never be found.

As he returned to shore a young helmsman asked him, “Well, Admiral, what do you think after seeing all of this destruction?”

Chester did not hesitate.

And he shocked them all.

He said, “The Japanese made three of the biggest mistakes an attack force could ever make, or God was taking care of America. Which do you think it was?”

Everyone sought for an answer.

Nobody had one.

“The Japanese attacked on Sunday morning,” Nimitz explained. “Nine out of every ten crewmen of those ships were ashore on leave. If those same ships had been lured to sea and been sunk, we would have lost 38,000 men instead of 3,800.”

That was Mistake Number One.

Nimitz continued, “When the Japanese saw all those battleships lined in a row, they got so carried away sinking those battleships, they never once bombed our dry docks opposite those ships. If they had destroyed our dry docks, we would have had to tow every one of those ships to America to be repaired. As it is now, the ships are in shallow water and can be raised. One tug can pull them over to the dry docks, and we can have them repaired at sea by the time we could have towed them to America. And I already have crews ashore anxious to man those ships.

That was Mistake Number Two.

“Every drop of fuel in the Pacific theater of war is in top of the ground storage tanks five miles away over that hill,” Nimitz said. “One attack plane could have strafed those tanks and destroyed our fuel supply.”

But it didn’t, and that was Mistake Number Three.

In the eyes of Chester Nimitz, America had not been defeated.

America was mad.

And the Greatest Generation marched off to war. In the Pacific, Admiral Nimitz at sea and General Douglas McArthur on land exacted a hard measure of America’s revenge. In their minds was etched one date: December 7.

Pearl Harbor Day.

Those who lived that day would never forget. The children of those who lived that day would never forget. But as the years have passed, Pearl Harbor, for many, has become a footnote in ancient history.

Fredericksburg, Texas, will certainly pause to pay a reverent tribute. Admiral Chester Nimitz grew to manhood in Fredericksburg, and the old hotel that was his home has become the Nimitz Museum and the centerpiece of the National Museum of the Pacific War. On December 7 of 2011, the museum will observe the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor with a program that begins with a flyover of World War II aircraft. General John F. Nichols, the Adjutant General of Texas, will speak. And wreaths will be laid by the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association and the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Association.

It is a day that America must remember. It was a day that brought America together. From the ashes of a terrible Sunday morning came brave young men and women to fight and die and fight on so that America could remain the land of the free and the home of the brave. From one nation’s mistakes came another nation’s ultimate victory. Admiral Chester Nimitz never doubted it for a moment.

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  • Thank you Caleb. For all my study of history I had never heard that story before. Let me share another.

    Several years ago I was at a conference attended by a retired officer from the naval arm of the Japanese self defense force. He had been a junior officer in the Japanese Imperial Navy during WWII. When a panel discussion ended, an American naval officer asked him a question that I too had wondered about. Why didn’t the Japanese invade the West Coast of North America following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Our Pacific Fleet was virtually destroyed with the exception of two carriers that happened to be at sea on December 7th. We had no air force – it hadn’t come into existence yet – and our Army was a skeleton force useful only to tend to decrepit posts and ceremonial duties. The Japanese officer agreed with this assessment but, he observed, we had an armed citizenry. They were armed with thousands of military caliber rifles and took great pride in demonstrating their marksmanship in matches and competitions. The Japanese high command, he announced, were cautious of engaging “that” force.

  • Anonymous

    Jack. That’s another hidden gem of history. And Japan was wise not to attack our squirrel, deer, and wild hog hunters. They do form a formidable militia. Several years ago, we did some work for the son of Paul Tibbets, who flew the Enola Gay and dropped the Atom bomb. He told me that after the war, very secretly, a dinner was arranged between his father and the Japanese flight commander who led the attack on Pearl Harbor. I would have loved to be there and hear, through interpreters, the man who began the war for the U.S. and the man who ended it. Paul’s son said there were no hard feelings, bitterness, or animosity, only a deep mutual respect between two old soldiers who were merely following orders.

    • One of the most memorable moments of my life was visiting the memorial in Hawaii. We stood on a platform over the remains of the Arizona in a somber silence. Beside me was a Japanese woman of about my age, and a young woman was with her. The Japanese woman was dropping flower petals into the sea and tears were streaming down her face. Soon, tears were streaming down my face. I asked the young woman if the lady was her mother and did she speak any English. She said it was her grandmother and she was so sorry for what her generation did to America. Grandma did not speak English, and I did not speak Japanese, but we communicated through our hearts that day. Brings tears to my eyes even now as I remember. That was a very healing moment for me as I let go of my anger over what happened that long ago December 7th.

    • Small world. I knew the Paul Tibbets you worked with. He was a pharmacist in Baton Rouge. He was/is very proud of his father.

  • Anonymous

    FC Etier. I asked Paul Tibbet’s son if his father ever suffered nightmares from dropping the Atom bomb on Japan. He said, “No. To him, it was merely an act of war in a time of war. He did what he was asked by his superiors to do. The only memory he had was watching the sun rise in the sky. He never saw the damage until it was reduced to photographs.”

  • Great stuff, Caleb. My dad and his brother signed up together for a one year hitch in the US Army in 1940. Thanks to December 7, 1941, they remained GIs until the war was over. The world has never seen the likes of the hell that day unleashed. Every time I drive down highway 31 to Waco, I pass the Doris Miller Cemetery. That’s Dor-ee Miller. He was the Black cook who came out on deck and manned a machine gun during the chaos of Pearl Harbor. He survived that battle only to die later, the victim of a Japanese torpedo. So many stories of courageous men and women who purchased our freedom.

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