My generation was several decades removed from the tragedy that struck the United States on December 7th, 1941. By the time Millennials came onto the scene, the attack on Pearl Harbor had, in many ways, already receded from our national consciousness.
We had been born into a different America…an America that, on one hand, had become more disenchanted and cynical, but on the other, more hopeful that justice and equality under the law were finally possible. The Civil Rights and women’s movements and Vietnam War had no small impact on many Baby Boomers, shaping the way in which they parented Gen X’ers and Millennials.
Yet, as a teenager I remember my grandfather and grandmother, both Hawaiian-Americans, recounting their experiences on the Day of Infamy.
My grandfather, Thomas, was a twelve year old island boy waking up on what would have otherwise been an ordinary Sunday morning. My great-grandparents had come home late the night before, having spent the evening dancing at the naval base surrounding Pearl Harbor.
My grandfather passed away four years ago, but I remember the mental picture he painted for me as he relived the day of the attack and the subsequent weeks that followed…
When he and his friends heard the rumbling of planes overhead, they ran outside to see what was happening. They climbed mango trees close to their homes in Kalihi, so that they could get a better view, not yet comprehending the horror of what was taking place just six miles away.
My grandmother, Ethel, was a poor ten year old Hawaiian girl. She recalls her and her siblings standing outside when a plane with a “big red zero” flew over their house. She began hearing a lot of noise, followed by her mother calling her into the house. Once she and her brothers and sisters were inside, her mom attempted to explain, as best as she could, what was happening in the harbor.
The days that followed were a blur, filled with uncertainty, fear, and rules. An island-wide curfew was instituted, requiring everyone to be in their homes by 4:00 every day. No electric lights were allowed to be used. Food, including the island staple, poi, was rationed. Families were issued gas masks, barefoot children carrying them to school.
Each of us carries stories of what we deem to be defining moments in our lives. December 7th, 1941 served as a defining moment for an entire generation. Even while those alive began to mourn the loss of the 2,400 lives that perished that day, the nation was hurled head first into a war it had earnestly tried to avoid.
Women found themselves entering the labor force, working on planes, ships, and weapons that would carry and support the husbands and sons they had kissed goodbye. Children born during the hardships of the Great Depression were now faced with a new foe: a heartbreaking war that would leave over 400,000 of their loved ones dead. Men left their homes and families behind, ready to fight for a worthy cause, but certain that if they made it home, they would not return the same.
What happened seventy-six years ago on an island in the Pacific should lead us to a deeper contemplation of our own time in history. It is undeniable that in this crucible of national suffering the character of the Greatest Generation was forged. May we learn from their example and always be ready to mobilize for a cause greater than ourselves and our temporary comforts.