This morning, a cacophony of U.S. Navy warships, some gliding stately up and down the main channel, others gently tugging at their moorings, wafts across the waters of Pearl Harbor.
But one ship never moves. The battleship USS Arizona lies below the murky waters of the harbor, its decks submerged, its armaments missing or askew. A telltale trail of oil — symbolic blood — still seeps from its sides three-quarters of a century after it was lost.
The Arizona is an icon of devotion and sacrifice. More than 900 men lie entombed below its decks. Yet it is difficult to escape the surrounding bustle that encroaches upon the reverence this final resting place deserves.
A few miles away and 500 feet above the harbor, in a volcanic crater called the Punchbowl, things are very different. Here, the loudest sound is that of silence itself. There are few visitors. Across the flat floor of the bowl, a carpet of green grass accents rows and rows of white marble markers. After the quiet, the most moving thing about this place is the dates on the graves.
So many of those buried here were born within a few years of one another — the late 1910s and early 1920s. They were not called baby boomers then, but they had indeed been conceived in the aftermath of World War I by parents who were hopeful of what lay ahead. But the dates on which so many of them died reveal that a hopeful future did not come to pass: 1942, 1943, 1944, and repeatedly December 1941, December 1941, December 1941, and most often December 7. Who were these men? What happened that day?
Among the 2,403 American servicemen who died 75 years ago at Pearl Harbor, 1,177 were crewmembers of the Arizona. Those who lie buried in the Punchbowl Crater at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, and their shipmates and friends still resting in the hull of the Arizona in the harbor, thought Dec. 7, 1941, would be like any other day. It wasn’t.
Their sacrifices became the defining memory marker of a generation — much as 9/11 would become for later generations.
Everyone of age to understand would always remember where he or she was when the news crackled out of a radio or spread across the front page of a newspaper.
The day before, America had been divided; many held strong isolationist views. But in two hours on a quiet Sunday morning, Japan’s surprise attack on the American fleet united the country as never before.
Pearl Harbor became a numbing low point of national shock and tragedy, but also a galvanizing moment that embedded a will to win at any cost in America’s national psyche.
We honor those who gave their lives 75 years ago but we also remember the contributions and sacrifices of those who answered the call.
Over the next four years, 10 million American men and women served in the armed forces of the United States. The youngest veterans of those years are now approaching 90 years of age or beyond.
In the twilight of their years, so many of their sharpest memories seem to be of that time long ago, when they were fresh-faced teenagers giving their all to a common purpose. Much has been written about their leaders, but their individual efforts made the difference.
This year’s commemoration of the attack on Pearl Harbor begins the last roll calls of the World War II generation at the places these men and women made sacred: today at Pearl Harbor; Midway and Guadalcanal; Kasserine Pass, Anzio and Normandy; Bastogne, Okinawa and more in the years to come.
They have been called the greatest generation, and rightly so. But we also remember that there are other dates on white markers in American cemeteries across the country and around the globe. The young names attached to them tell of other generations who also gave the last full measure: in Korea and Vietnam, and too recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Perhaps the greatest lesson from Pearl Harbor and the generation that lived through it is that nothing is impossible. They were a “can-do” generation. They did not take “no” for an answer. They did not put off what needed to be done.
On this 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, we honor their memory, remember their resolve and strive to live up to their example.
Historian Walter R. Borneman is the author of "MacArthur at War: World War II in the Pacific" just published by Little, Brown.