When Japanese planes swept across Pearl Harbor 52 years ago today, bombing and strafing, they taught the United States a bitter lesson that some survivors of that ferocious surprise attack believe is being lost on the country.
"Our motto is 'Keep America Alert,' and that's what we Survivors try to do," said Richard L. Brown, 75, of Timonium, who was in the war from start to finish.
He was a young seaman on the USS West Virginia when a half dozen torpedoes and numerous bombs sank her at her Battleship Row mooring that December morning. Nearly four years later, on Sept. 2, 1945, he looked down from the superstructure of the USS Missouri and watched the Japanese High Command sign the articles of surrender aboard the battleship in Tokyo Bay.
Gerald W. Hamill was an aircraft mechanic at Hickam Field, one of the prime Japanese targets. He watched, helpless, as enemy bombs destroyed the cream of the Army Air Service.
Myrtle M. Watson was a young Army nurse on duty at Schofield Hospital. She worked feverishly during the three days after the attack, with little help, with few supplies and with no sleep. The dead, dying and wounded arrived in a seemingly endless stream.
These three are among the 300 Maryland members of the 14,000-member Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. The PHSA "is a unique association, the only one of its kind. We have a bond of where we were and what we did," said Mrs. Watson.
For the Survivors and for others, Dec. 7, 1941, will always be the "date which will live in infamy."
"Remember Pearl Harbor" became a rallying cry for Americans, and the refrain in a popular song heard throughout the land in the those early, dark days of war.
More than a half-century later, some Survivors believe America might be vulnerable to another brutal surprise. They believe a dangerous air of neoisolationism and complacency is abroad in the land and there seems to be little sense of history, particularly among young people.
The collapse of the Soviet Union has eased but not eliminated the threat of nuclear war, asserts Mr. Hamill, 73, of Towson. He is coordinating this year's remembrance ceremony, which will be held in the Inner Harbor at 12:15 p.m. today aboard the Constellation.
The Friends of the Baltimore Maritime Museum will hold a simultaneous ceremony aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Roger B. Taney, the last warship still afloat that fought at Pearl Harbor. The ceremony will be held at the south end of Pier 4 behind the National Aquarium Mammal Pavilion. At 12:55 p.m., the local time of the attack, a police helicopter will drop a memorial wreath into the harbor.
Mr. Hamill sees parallels between today and the situation before world war broke out in 1939.
"There is complacency and bickering; people were not involved in what was going on in the world. We were isolationist then, and we can't afford it now," he said. "If we don't stay alert and keep America strong we could have another day of infamy, from one of these dictators who are toying with the atomic bomb."
Mr. Brown was reported lost in action after the attack on Pearl Harbor. His parents even held a memorial service for him. Barely three weeks later, on Christmas Eve 1941, they got the good news that he was alive.
Death and destruction
During nearly four years of war, Mr. Brown witnessed indescribable scenes of death and destruction. In 1942, he survived the burning and sinking of the aircraft carrier USS Lexington after the Battle of the Coral Sea. Yet, it is a moment of peace amid chaos that he remembers.
Two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he and several shipmates returned to the West Virginia, which had settled upright on the harbor bottom.
"The water was knee-deep in our compartment. My locker was at the foot of the ladder, right below the hatch, and everything in it was burned to a crisp," he said. "The next locker belonged to a man who was very religious; everything in it was also burned except his Bible. That gave us more faith to go on."
It is important to "Remember Pearl Harbor" each year, Mr. Hamill said, "because [the sneak attack] shows how complacency and inattention to the world and its politics can erode our freedom and our ability to survive as a nation."
The Japanese attack on Oahu included five airfields and the Schofield Barracks besides the naval installations at Pearl Harbor. The toll was high; more than 2,400 military and civilian dead, almost half aboard the battleship USS Arizona. Scores of airplanes, most caught on the ground by the surprise attack, were destroyed. Nearly 20 vessels, battleships, cruisers and destroyers, were sunk, capsized or severely damaged.
The Pearl Harbor veterans say they believe that the current generation of young Americans is too self-absorbed. "We're losing our sense of history," Mr. Hamill said. "People tend to take everything for granted and the young people aren't aware of why are a great country. It didn't just happen."
Modern young people seem to lack the sense of patriotism that motivated their grandfathers, who were themselves youngsters when the attack on Pearl Harbor devastated the U.S. Pacific fleet and hurled the country into World War II, said Mrs. Watson, a Northeast Baltimore resident.
'Spirit of patriotism'
"I wish their mothers could have seen them that day," she said.--"The spirit of patriotism of those soldiers. I cannot find an adjective strong enough to describe it, their caring for each other, for their buddies, and their anger and frustration at not being able to do what they were trained for."
Reflecting back half a century, Mrs. Watson said, "I can see them now. They didn't complain; they all cared for the other fellow."
"America's not alert now. I don't think today's young people have the same pride and patriotism. It's just too much everyone for himself," said Mrs. Watson, who retired as nursing head of
neonatal intensive care at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.
Her war memory is of three days of unremitting work amid confusion and chaos after the strafing and bombing. Supplies grew scarce. The hospital had been short-staffed for the weekend. After the attack, doctors and nurses couldn't get there.
Dead, dying and wounded were stacked up in hospital corridors. In Mrs. Watson's section there were a few medics and some ambulatory patients to help.
"There was no communication and we were so busy, we had no idea what had happened at Pearl Harbor, how bad it was there," she said.
She had just wheeled her patients onto the hospital's second-floor lanai to watch an inter-regimental football game on the square below when the Japanese planes roared overhead. She has a macabre memento of the attack, a bullet that hit the door frame where she was standing. It would have hit her in the dTC legs, if a soldier had not pushed her inside.
After the war
After the war, Mrs. Watson lived in Hawaii for many years and still returns to visit one of her daughters.
Every visit resurrects memories. When she last stopped at the Schofield Hospital -- no longer used as such -- she said an "eerie and spooky" feeling came over her as she gazed up at the lanai and remembered being there with her patients when the Japanese planes flew past. For Mrs. Watson and anyone who has visited Pearl Harbor, the most powerfully moving experience is the trip to Battleship Row at Ford Island. There lies the national monument marking the USS Arizona. The battleship's superstructure is long gone but the vast hull is visible beneath a few feet of water. Oil bubbles rise constantly from her fuel bunkers, breaking the surface with gentle pops, a reminder that 1,177 of her crew are still aboard.
Yet even at Pearl Harbor old traditions are fading, Mrs. Watson lamented.
"Whenever we went out to the Arizona we always took a lei, 'a lei of love,' to drop in the water. But the last time we went, the only other people who did it were a group of Japanese businessmen. More and more it's being forgotten."
Americans do not learn their own history, Mrs. Watson said. Seminal events like Pearl Harbor are barely mentioned in classroom lessons, she said, "It's not stressed enough today. That's why the Survivors stress 'Keep America Alert -- Remember Pearl Harbor.'"
REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR
Music and slogans have always rallied people at war. Phrases such as "Remember the Alamo" and "Remember the Maine" sparked the country. On Dec. 17, 1941, ten days after the Japanese attack, Sammy Kaye and his orchestra recorded the first song of World War II to inspire Americans to recall their history and "Remember Pearl Harbor."
The bouncy tune sounded much like a college football fight song and the lyrics went:
"History in ev'ry century records an act that lives forevermore.
"We'll recall, as into line we fall, the thing that happened on Hawaii's shore.
"Let's remember Pearl Harbor as we go to meet the foe.
"Let's remember Pearl Harbor as we did the Alamo.
"We will always remember how they died for Liberty.
"Let's remember Pearl Harbor and go on to victory.
Lyrics by Don Reid. Music by Sammy Kaye and Don Reid. Copyright 1941 by Republic Music Corp., New York.
To hear "Remember Pearl Harbor" call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800 (268-7736 in Anne Arundel County, 836-5028 in Harford County, 848-0338 in Carroll County). Using a Touch-Tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6154 after you hear the greeting.