Living in Infamy
December 7 carries a big burden. President Roosevelt had it right: this date lives in infamy. For Americans it will always be associated with the horrific Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Every year on this day solemn ceremonies honor the lives lost and the irreversible descent into World War II. The hard-hit Pacific Fleet base at Pearl Harbor carries the banner, although the Japanese also targeted numerous other military installations on Oahu and across the Pacific, including Wake Island.
Infamy is a loaded word: it conjures up a condition of detestable evil and the righteous outrage that stands steadfastly against it, in this case, wrapped in the flag. Over time infamy acquires an almost impenetrable shell that repels the probes of reconsideration. In December 1941 war was clearly looming on the western horizon, but the United States had made a firm commitment to a Europe-first strategy when it entered the war. For a number of reasons the Roosevelt Administration waited for Japan to take the first shot to justify the nation’s entry into the war, and fully expected that the first shot would come somewhere in the Far East.
The “first shot” that hit Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was part of a carefully coordinated strategy. That day (December 8 on the western side of the international date line) Japanese forces also attacked multiple locations in Southeast Asia and the Pacific including Malaya, the Kra Peninsula, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Guam, and Wake Island. The Americans and British “consistently underrated the Japanese and failed to appreciate the defiant, do-or-die mentality of its current leadership,” writes historian Waldo Heinrichs. Japanese planning, organization, and willingness to take heavy risks contributed to its successes that day. Weak defenses, ineffective or obsolete weapons, poor inter-service communications, and the “rituals and routines of peace” that prevailed right up to the last moment, contributed to the shock, death, and destruction experienced by Americans that day. These and other factors reflected a persistent faith in American invulnerability and Japanese inferiority. The risk of waiting for Japan to fire the first shot was that America did not know where, when, or how it would come. (Building for War, 198-99)
“Not fair!” Americans cried then, and reaffirm year after year.
I was honored to stay on base at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam before and after my trip to Wake Island in 2011. It was the week before the seventieth anniversary of December 7, 1941. The day before the flight to Wake I joined a couple of members of the 611th Air Support Group to visit the public Pearl Harbor Memorial site, including a trip out to the USS Arizona Memorial, which more than a million visitors take every year.
Despite the jostling crowds the Arizona was deeply moving. To me the pulsing sheen of oil on the water above the sunken, slowly-leaking battleship was most evocative. Looking across to the woods on Ford Island, I had a hard time imagining Pearl Harbor as it would have looked seventy years earlier. Later on base we walked around the grounds of the harbor. Impressive as it was, I didn’t have a sense of the immediacy of infamy, just a busy and bustling navy base.
After our trip to Wake we returned to the joint base, this time staying on the Hickam side. I was given a personal tour of the Pacific Air Forces command grounds and headquarters by a knowledgeable historian. Preparations were underway for commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of December 7: a large bronze plaque bearing the names of the airmen who perished received the finishing touches in the Courtyard of Heroes; the U.S. flag ripped by gunfire that day was prepared for display. Back in 1941 the building that now serves as PACOM headquarters was a barracks at Hickam Field that held 3,000 men, 60 of whom died from their wounds. Outside as we walked around the buildings on bougainvillea-lined sidewalks, my guide pointed out the pockmarked walls that still bear the scars of that day. There is a lesson here and it is not about what constitutes infamy. Still, as I stood there looking at the strafed wall I thought about the bullets that splintered wood, shattered glass, and split flesh right there, on Wake Island, and across the Pacific seventy years before, and I whispered, “not fair.”