Today is the 80th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. We can vaguely understand how the Greatest Generation felt by comparing it to the impact of 9/11 on our generation. However, as terrible as 9/11 was, it doesn’t compare to the attack on Pearl Harbor. On the morning of Sunday, December 7th, 1941, 183 aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the United States Naval base at Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. It took only two hours to sink or damage 18 US warships (virtually the entire Pacific fleet), destroy 188 aircraft and kill 2,403 American servicemen and women.
My beautiful mother is 96, which means she was a 16 year old high school girl in 1941. She was living in Johnson City, Tennessee and since it was Sunday, she and her family were at church. Near the end of the service, a man announced that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. Since a war in Europe was raging, many young men were already in uniform. All of them got up from their seats immediately and returned to their units.
Society and the country changed rapidly during those four and a half years. Interestingly, only a few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting a vivacious 101 year old woman who had worked a “comptometer” (a mechanical calculator) at the uranium enrichment facility in Oakridge, Tennessee which was vital to the “Manhattan Project.” Like her, my mother was from a small town in Tennessee. Although her older sister had gone to secretarial school, with a war raging, my Mother got a college degree in chemistry because the country needed scientists. The nation that emerged from WWII would be dramatically different from the one in 1941.
The war in the South Pacific would last (officially) until September 2nd, 1945 and take the lives of over 400,000 American soldiers. We asked my Mother what she remembered about the day WWII began for the United States, on December 7th, 1941. We expected an emotional response full of little details – the way people would later remember exactly what they were doing when they heard President Kennedy had been assassinated. She replied simply, “We didn’t know much of anything. All we knew was that we’d been attacked, and the war had started.” Eighty years ago, no one watched the bombing of Pearl Harbor on CNN. Mother and her family went home from church that Sunday, and just waited for news… Perhaps that’s the hardest thing for our generation to imagine.