No reason needed to fly the American flag. But flying the colors today may be even more appropriate than other days. It’s the 80th anniversary of the sneak attack by Japan on American naval and Army forces at Pearl Harbor, dragging the United States into the most horrific war in the history of the planet, a war anyone paying attention at the time knew was inevitable.
Sixty-five million military and civilian deaths and an uncountable amount of destruction and ruined lives later, fascism was defeated. But the world would never be the same. Millions across the globe answered the call and put their lives on the line. Many who survived the fighting returned to wrestle with the horrors they were obliged to see and do for their remaining days. This is a huge day in American history. And it is melancholy to speculate on how few Americans will likely remember and honor it, or who could even find Pearl Harbor on a map.
Survivors of that day are very thin on the ground now. No one knows for sure how many are left, but a seaman second class who was 18 years old on that fateful day would be 98 today. Some will make the trip to Pearl Harbor for the ceremonies to be held there. But the numbers able to do this have dwindled down, in the words of the song, to a precious few.
In 1991, as December and the 50th anniversary of the attack approached, I was privileged to be commissioned by a local city magazine to do an article on Pearl Harbor survivors living in the Tampa Bay area. I located about a dozen of these and greatly enjoyed hearing their stories and joining in a couple of their events. These guys were all from elsewhere, but had been in Florida and in each other’s company long enough to be free and easy with each other. Very gracious of them to welcome and share with this writer and complete stranger. It didn’t hurt that I was also a Navy veteran, but from a later and far less perilous time than these men had to deal with.
My favorite day with the guys was a back yard cookout at one of their homes where over beer and burgers these guys told their stories for the umpteenth time. And a tip of the hat to these guys’ tolerant wives who had heard these stories more times than they cared to count.
Save for two of my survivors who had been Army privates stationed at Schofield Barracks on that day, all of the dozen or so were sailors on various ships. A couple stayed in the Navy for careers, but most went back to civilian life after the war. My youngest was likely one of the few — perhaps the only — guys who were both an Army and a Navy veteran of WWII. At the butt end of the Great Depression this guy was not enjoying his home life at all, so he “borrowed” his older brother’s birth certificate and enlisted in the Army at 14. (He was big for his age.) When his parents finally found where he was he was already a combat veteran but still too young to be in the Army. So he was discharged. When he became of age he decided he hadn’t liked the Army all that much and so enlisted in the Navy, where he became a cook.
I hate to speculate on whether any of these guys — or their good ladies — could still be alive today. Most were in their early seventies or late sixties 30 years ago. So it’s doubtful that any remain. But today I’ll remember and give thanks for these guys, and for the millions of others who served. And I’ll fly the flag, in appreciation of my country, and of those who defended it when the need was great, and at their own great peril.