The hard les­son of Pearl Har­bor

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE -

Leroy Bar­ber grew up in ru­ral New Lon­don, Wis., hunt­ing and fish­ing with two of his broth­ers. He en­listed in the Navy, trained at the Great Lakes fa­cil­ity north of Chicago and was as­signed to a bat­tle­ship. Bar­ber en­joyed be­ing a sailor, missed his broth­ers and ad­vised them to join up. The Navy made an ex­cep­tion to its rule against putting fam­ily mem­bers on one boat — a de­ci­sion their fa­ther sought to re­verse — but Amer­ica was not at war, and Hawaii was about as far from Europe’s fight­ing as you could get.

That’s how the Bar­ber boys, Mal­colm, 22, Leroy, 21 and Ran­dolph, 19, came to serve to­gether as fire­men on the USS Ok­la­homa. And that is how they died: to­gether, on the morn­ing of Dec. 7, 1941 — 75 years ago to­day — when the Ja­panese at­tacked Pearl Har­bor and drew Amer­ica into World War II.

“We are not bit­ter, but there is one thing nei­ther of us can for­give,” Peter Bar­ber, their fa­ther, told the Chicago Tri­bune in May 1942. “We were at peace when the at­tack started. Our boys didn’t even know about it. They must have been caught below decks with­out any chance to fight back. If they had known — if we had been on guard — they would have re­turned fire and they might not all have died.”

Many wars are re­mem­bered and bat­tles com­mem­o­rated. But only two dates on the cal­en­dar awaken rec­ol­lec­tions of a sneak at­tack on Amer­i­can ter­ri­tory by an un­de­clared en­emy. One is Sept. 11, which was 15 years ago this year. And then there is Dec. 7, “a date which will live in in­famy,” as Pres­i­dent Franklin Roo­sevelt told Congress in a na­tional ra­dio broad­cast the next af­ter­noon. A few hours later, the United States de­clared war on Ja­pan. A few days later, the U.S. de­clared war on Ger­many.

The at­tack on Pearl Har­bor was a sur­prise, but it was fore­shad­owed. In 1941, Amer­ica was at­tempt­ing to check Ja­panese ag­gres­sion in China through eco­nomic sanc­tions. The U.S. knew from a code-break­ing op­er­a­tion known as “Magic” that Ja­pan was gird­ing for war. Con­flict seemed in­evitable, but of­fi­cials in Wash­ing­ton missed the sig­nals that war was im­mi­nent, and never guessed Hawaii would be a tar­get. The Amer­i­can pub­lic also was un­pre­pared.

On Dec. 1, the Tri­bune re­ported that on­go­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions to halt Ja­pan’s ex­pan­sion­ist moves were at a crit­i­cal junc­ture, but there was a dis­tant, the­o­ret­i­cal tone to the warn­ing. The U.S., hav­ing backed Bri­tain in Europe, was al­ready en­gaged in quasi-con­flict with Ger­many. In the Pa­cific, war against Ja­pan re­mained an un­ap­peal­ing ques­tion. “The United States is not pre­pared to fight a war on two fronts and will not be be­fore the com­ple­tion of our two-ocean navy in 1946,” the Tri­bune’s story said.

The U.S. mil­i­tary was not on alert in Hawaii. Most naval per­son­nel treated Dec. 7, a Sun­day, as a day off. Around 7 a.m., just as radar op­er­a­tors were com­plet­ing their overnight watch, they spotted a stun­ning con­cen­tra­tion of air­craft com­ing their way — must be B-17s com­ing in from Cal­i­for­nia, they were told. Wrong. This was the first Ja­panese car­rier strike force of tor­pedo- and dive-bombers, es­corted by Zero fight­ers. The Ja­panese at­tack, com­pleted in two waves in less than two hours, de­stroyed most of the U.S. mil­i­tary planes on the is­land of Oahu and dev­as­tated the U.S. Pa­cific fleet. Most of the ships’ anti-air­craft guns were un­manned. A few heroic Amer­i­can pi­lots got off the ground to shoot down Ze­ros, but the day marked a hu­mil­i­at­ing and painful en­trance to the war. The Bar­ber broth­ers were among 2,300 U.S. ser­vice mem­bers killed.

First­hand de­scrip­tions of Dec. 7 have dwin­dled as sur­vivors de­part us, but the les­son of Pearl Har­bor en­dures. In 1941, the United States failed to an­tic­i­pate Ja­panese ag­gres­sion. In 2001, ter­ror­ists in­ten­si­fied a slow­burn­ing war against Amer­i­can civil­ians that had started years ear­lier and con­tin­ues to­day. De­spite Amer­ica’s great power and com­par­a­tive iso­la­tion on the map, it is vul­ner­a­ble to the en­e­mies it has, and the ones it may have. Our nation for­gets that at its peril.

This editorial orig­i­nally ap­peared in the Chicago Tri­bune on Dec. 3.

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