The best place to hear about it is from survivors, and you can see many of their stories on You Tube, many of them interviewed with the very scene of the attack as a backdrop, now all peace and sunshine and palm trees. I went to Pearl Harbor in 2005. It being Hawaii, the place was absolutely gorgeous.
It struck me that the servicemen there in December of 1941 probably hadn't been too displeased with their orders when they ended up serving in a 70-degree paradise in wintertime. Hawaii was less developed then, of course, but still beautiful, dotted with enough natural attractions to keep anyone spellbound. Perhaps they were considering their good fortune as they strode the decks of the Arizona that morning. Maybe they were looking out into the breezy blue and counting themselves lucky to in paradise instead of Pennsylvania.
Then, blue skies clouded with Japanese bombers, calm waters caught on fire, and those young men became fighters and casualties in a war they didn't even know had started.
Ansil Saunders was one of those fighters:
Donald Robinett came directly to the sign-in area for Pearl Harbor survivors when he arrived here this week.
"I am trying to find my shipmates," the 89-year-old veteran announced excitedly. "I want to see which ones are here."
A volunteer at the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, one of the groups organizing a massive reunion to mark the 65th anniversary of the Japanese attack on U.S. forces here, began flipping through a log book until she came to Robinett's ship, the USS Tracy, a small mine-laying vessel that had been in port that infamous day. "Sir," she said sadly, patting the old sailor on his shoulder, "you're the only one here."
In the decades since the bombing of Pearl Harbor, countless survivors have made the long journey back to Hawaii every five years to remember comrades who were lost and to catch up with those who lived but later went their separate ways. They drink Scotch and tell war stories; they brag and weep. They often just sit together and say nothing at all.
But this year's reunion holds an urgency that hasn't been part of gatherings past: Most Pearl Harbor survivors, nearing their 90s or even older, say it will be their final trip back to this place that changed the course of their lives and their nation forever. Event organizers--many of them children of survivors who are ailing or already have died--pragmatically are calling this the "final reunion." And survivors' extended families, including children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, are coming along to the reunion in unprecedented numbers to glimpse history firsthand through their loved one's eyes before the opportunity is gone.
"This is their last swan song," said Sue Marks, an event volunteer whose father, a Pearl Harbor survivor, died a decade ago. "They know that a lot of them either won't be around in five years or won't be able to make the long trip."
Victor Davis Hanson remembers another blue-sky day ripped open by invading aircraft:
A stronger, far more affluent United States believes it can use less of its power against the terrorists than a much poorer America did against the formidable Japanese and Germans.
World War II, which saw more than 400,000 Americans killed, was not nearly as controversial or frustrating as one that has so far taken less than one-hundredth of that terrible toll.
And after Pearl Harbor, Americans believed they had no margin of error in an elemental war for survival. Today, we are apparently convinced that we can lose ground, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, and still not lose either the war or our civilization.
Of course, by 1945, Americans no longer feared another Pearl Harbor. Yet, we, in a far stronger and larger United States, are still not sure we won’t see another Sept. 11.
As Saunders says, "Remember Pearl Harbor and keep America alert."
Update: My dad found a cool photo gallery of color photos from the day, most of which I'd never seen.