This year, the only people I knew who remembered Pearl Harbor died. My grandparents were in their late 90s, and were among the very many who were not in Hawaii, nor in Oahu on that day – they were in not, in other words, immediately affected by the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7th, 1941, although it would of course shape their lives as it did everyone else’s at that point in history. I am sure that they did not need to be reminded not to forget.
But the attack on Pearl Harbor does not live in my memories. Or, to put it another way, the first memory I have of the attack on Pearl Harbor is in my junior high social studies classroom, when we were learning how to describe the reasons why nations go to war: systemic causes, proximate causes, immediate causes. Pearl Harbor was the correct example to give on the essay portion of the test defining “immediate causes for war”, the reason why the United State entered World War II. And since that war was waged against the forces that were busy annihilating most of the other side of my family in Poland at that precise moment in time, my feelings about Pearl Harbor were similar to Winston Churchill’s reaction upon hearing news of the attack: “So we have won after all!”
“You are here.” A few days before the 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, I visited the newly renovated Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument in Oahu. The slate blue water of the harbor was calm as I walked beside it, reading the placards describing the attack. It was late afternoon, the soft air was losing its heat, the blue skies just a little cloudy, the palm trees swaying and the succulent shrubbery glistening. I stopped in front of a large photograph taken on the morning of the attack, raising my eyes from the shapes identified in the billowing smoke as Battleship Row, Dry Dock #1, The Nevada to the scene in front of me, and darting back down again. My position in the photograph was marked with “you are here”. It was filled dark shapes that could have been small trees or perhaps a knot of people, crouching. The sky was not filled with wispy clouds filtering the sunlight, but with debris, the larger pieces marked as “bursts of antiaircraft fire”.
I passed on to other placards, photos showing black smoke with the only spots of bright the turrets of the ships enflamed. More than 3,500 people were dead or wounded. A photo of a mass, temporary flag draped grave. A photo of a dead body of a man, in shorts and a t-shirt, face down in shallow water near the beach at Kaneohe Bay. A Navy casualty.
There was a gun on display inside the new exhibit of the visitor center, found to have been fired that day at enemy aircraft, by servicemen under attack. Those without guns threw wrenches. There was also a gas mask on display, the likes of which were issued to every person on Oahu in the days after the attack, when martial law was declared, with the instructions to have it with you, always. There was description of barbed wire strung up along the beaches. What was not pictured, I could easily imagine.
It is of course correct to describe the attack on Pearl Harbor as an immediate cause of war. But after my visit to Pearl Harbor Visitor’s Center, I understood that December 7th, 1941 was also at its start a day like any other, a day when a wrench was tucked into a work belt, a gun slid into a holster, not just an essay answer or a symbol. What is still impossible for me to remember, after this visit, will now also be hard for me to forget.