Broadcast recordings from Dec. 7, 1941, are readily available on the internet these days. The breathless announcement by a radio reporter at precisely 2:28 p.m. Eastern time gives listeners, even today, a glimpse into the enormous impact of the shock that sent the nation reeling.
“From the NBC newsroom in New York,” the reporter says, breaking into Sunday afternoon programming after the end of the Sammy Kaye music show with an awkwardly read bulletin, “President Roosevelt said in a statement today that the Japanese have attacked the Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, from the air.”
Elsewhere in New York, 55,051 fans watching the New York Giants play the NFL’s Brooklyn Dodgers were startled when, just as the Dodgers approached the line of scrimmage at the Giants’ 4-yard line, a voice barked over the loudspeaker.
“Attention please!” it said. “Here is an urgent message. Will Col. William J. Donovan call Operator 19 in Washington, D.C., immediately.”
Such a strange message at such an inopportune time. Players and fans stopped to listen. As Mike Vaccaro describes in his book, “1941, The Greatest Year in Sports,” the same announcer soon returned, summoning former Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, then others, finally telling all Navy men to report to their posts immediately, and all in the Army to report in the morning. Those listening to the game on radio heard a “flash” from Washington during the kickoff after Brooklyn scored.
All across America, the news trickled into homes, churches and everywhere else people gathered.
History offers several hinge points — dates upon which events occur that forever change the world and the way humans interact. The attacks on 9/11, 20 years ago, changed us. But before that was Pearl Harbor. Americans had long been anxious about the war in Europe and conflicts in Asia. Eighty years ago Tuesday, it all struck home in a violent thunderclap.
In the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese killed 2,403 Americans and wounded 1,178 more. The next day, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war, calling Dec. 7, 1941, “a date which will live in infamy.”
In his book, “The Darkest Year,” William K. Klingaman describes the immediate aftermath as young Americans marched off to war. Among other things, “Physicians reported a sharp increase in cases of insomnia, making it ‘public illness No. 1,’ affecting an estimated one-third of the adult population.”
They had good reason to lose sleep as the casualty figures rose. In all, 405,399 Americans lost their lives in the war. They were fathers, husbands, fiances and sons, and each death scattered shock and grief like lightning through the lives of all who lost their loved ones and friends.
By the time U.S. and allied forces had eliminated Hitler and forced Japan to surrender, the world order had changed and the atomic age was here. Life would never again be as it had been early on that December morning in 1941.
It is instructive, however, to ponder how differently, and darkly, it would have changed if Americans had not set aside their lives and stepped up.
Today, Pearl Harbor is again in the news because underground fuel tanks built during WWII are believed to be leaking, possibly into nearby aquifers. That, and a report last week that a WWII bomb exploded at a construction site in Munich show that 80 years is not such a long time.
But these reports pale in comparison to what young Americans in that day did, literally sacrificing their lives, not to avenge Pearl Harbor, but to save the world from tyranny.
Today, no clear figures exist as to how many Pearl Harbor survivors remain alive, but about 30 of them, along with about 100 other veterans of the war, are expected to attend ceremonies in Hawaii, according to The Associated Press.
They won’t be here for many more anniversaries. They deserve all the thanks and honor the nation has the capacity to give.
The true shock of that day 80 years ago is impossible to recreate. But the sacrifice that generation made to give us a lasting peace that, despite several conflicts through the years, has kept the world from a third global conflict, must never be forgotten.