Today marks the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. On this day back in 1941, in the span of about two hours, planes from the Japanese Navy surprised the U.S. Pacific Fleet at their base in Hawaii, inflicted considerable damage including the loss of over 2000 lives, and plunged the United States into World War II. So many words have been written about this moment in time that I could not possibly add to it from a historical perspective. So today, I want to address it from a purely personal one: as a kid I was obsessed with Pearl Harbor.
I don’t really remember when or how the obsession started. Back in the early 1970s, World War II was not that far back in our collective past: only 30 years back which is roughly the same amount of time between now and the first Gulf War back in 1991. Most of my uncles were WWII vets. Pretty much all of my male teachers were WWII vets. I even took a class on World War II during my senior year at Pontiac Central High School taught by a veteran of the Pacific war.
It is also possible that my obsession was geographical. Growing up in West Virginia, the state celebrated its strong connection to Pearl Harbor – seeing as how the battleship USS West Virginia was one of the ships present and sunk that day.
Of course, they end up in the middle of the attack but they rise to the challenge, dodging bullets and rescuing sailors from the sinking ships on Battleship Row. And, of course, Mike’s new sailboat ends up sinking along with the other ships of the Pacific Fleet. The illustration of Mike crying as his boat sinks beneath the waves is seared on my youthful brain.
But, by far, my favorite book on the subject at the Weirton Library was the official U.S. Navy Report on Pearl Harbor: a big thick book in blue binding that could not be checked out because it was part of the Reference section. So I spent several weekends sitting in the library reading that book from cover to cover. It was devoted just as much to the aftermath of the attack as to the causes and featured a ton of photographs about the salvaging of the ships that I have never seen before or since.
My obsession manifested itself in other ways. Naturally, I bought and made the Revell models of the USS Arizona and USS Pennsylvania. In fact, between the various battleships, aircraft carriers, troop transports, cargo ships, cruisers, and destroyer models I built, I could (and did) put my own private Pacific Fleet to sea on the floor of my bedroom.
But that still wasn’t good enough.
Finally, I did what any red-blooded nerd of eight would do in that situation: I built my own Pearl Harbor. Using nothing but a pencil and a whole lot of notebook paper. I drew the major geographic points of the harbor: Ford Island, Pearl City, Hospital Point, the dry docks, the various docks and piers then drew the significant buildings that occupied those sites. I drew the adjacent airfields of Hickam and Wheeler Fields. I drew the Scofield Barracks across the street from Wheeler Field. For each ship, it was not enough to just draw a ship, I had to draw the ship EXACTLY how it looked – not an easy thing to find out in the pre-internet days. It required a lot of trips back to the library to consult the big blue book. And, if a ship was damaged or sunk, I made a separate drawing showing how the ship looked after that.
Having done all of that, I laid out my own personal Pearl Harbor on the floor of our family living room (one of the most versatile rooms I ever knew. I will have to share a post about that some day). My mother’s only rule was whatever I laid out on the floor had to be picked up by the end of the same day.
And so, I would use my Pearl Harbor assembled entirely out of notebook paper to recreate the attack in my head with each ship sinking in the correct order as wave after wave of invisible Japanese planes strafed the floor of our living room. The capsizing of the Oklahoma and the Utah. The sinking of the California and the West Virginia. The unimaginable explosion of the Arizona which literally ripped that great battleship in half. The explosion of the destroyer Shaw. The Nevada making its break for the sea only to beach at Hospital Point rather than risk getting sunk in (and blocking) the narrow harbor entrance. The whole thing was very portable. It all fit inside a large 11 x 14 legal envelope.
Then, at the height of my Pearl Harbor madness, 20th Century- Fox came out with Tora, Tora, Tora! (1970) – a $20 million dollar ($300 million today!) epic recreation of that day which will always live in infamy.
Of course, I wanted to see it. I desperately wanted to see it – but my mother decreed that I was too young to see it. So I had to wait for that day – some day in the future – when it might end up on TV.
It didn’t help that most of my elementary school friends saw it and endlessly talked about it at the bus stop. Mostly they talked about the humorous true moments in the film. They liked to laugh about the Nevada’s band continuing to play “The Star Spangled Banner” even as the attack started around them, only playing at an increasingly faster tempo. They loved the scene where a female flight instructor teaching a teenager how to fly found herself in the middle of the incoming Japanese squadron. “I’ll take over now, Davey!” became one of those catch phrases that always got a laugh in my elementary school yard.
Finally, after three years of waiting, I learned that Tora, Tora, Tora! was going to premiere on the CBS Friday Night Movie in the Fall of 1973.
I was ecstatic. I was beyond ecstasy. I pleaded with my parents to allow me to move the portable color TV from their bedroom down to the living room so I could set up my living room Pearl Harbor and watch the movie there, all while recording each ship as it went below the waves in the movie. They, naturally, agreed.
It was one of the greatest nights of my childhood that I have almost forgot about. And it marked the high water mark of my Pearl Harbor obsession. After that, I began to pull my Pearl Harbor out of its manila envelope less and less. My Revell Pacific Fleet stayed more or less permanently anchored on the shelves of my room. I moved on to my next obsessions. In later years, I threw out my notebook paper Pearl. The model ships went in the garbage when I moved away from home. But Pearl Harbor has remained a real and memorable part of my childhood just as it continues to have a hold on our nation’s imagination.
Besides Tora, Tora, Tora! the 1970s saw other Pearl Harbor related productions like the major miniseries Pearl (1976) and From Here To Eternity (1977) – which briefly became a TV series. There was Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (1979) which took a comedic look at the war scare hysteria Pearl Harbor caused west coast Americans who feared the Japanese would invade at any moment. And there was The Final Countdown (1980) which imagined what would happen if a modern nuclear aircraft carrier mysteriously traveled back in time to that day in 1941. Would it use its jet planes and modern weapons to stop the attack? Or would it let history play out the way it did?
For my money, the two best films about the attack – besides Tora, Tora, Tora! – remain the original From Here To Eternity (1953) which brilliantly captures what life was like in our peacetime military before the attack and WWII altered it forever. The other is In Harm’s Way (1965), a bit of a rambling John Wayne war epic whose Act I is devoted entirely to the attack. It nicely captures the shock and awe experienced by everyone on that fateful Sunday morning. (Sorry, but Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001) is a big, lumbering, interminable mess).
So why does Pearl Harbor stick with us 75 years after the events of that day? Why was I so obsessed with it for awhile in my childhood? I don’t know if I know the answer but I suspect it has to do with the same reasons all disasters stick with us whether it is the Titanic or the Challenger explosion or 9/11. For some of us, it is a chance to play arm chair quarterback, to go back and piece together the trail of intelligence that shows how the people in authority SHOULD have known what was about to happen, another chance to show how incompetent our government is. For others, it is a chance to take inspiration from the countless acts of heroism performed that day by sailors, soldiers, and civilians who found themselves rousted out of bed by the first bombs and rose to the challenge. “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!” a naval chaplain blurted out during the attack and it became a national catchphrase for a time.
But I think the real reason Pearl Harbor continues to haunt our minds is because there is always that moment before the attack happened, , where the possibility of an entirely different future hangs in the balance as a real possibility before events spun history down the path we find ourselves on today. The Pacific Fleet gets the warnings and is ready. The Titanic sees the iceberg a minute earlier. The 9/11 hijackers are identified and stopped before they can board the planes. Thousands of lives are saved; some of the worst events in history are averted. And we are allowed to pretend that our lives could continue in some innocent utopian Eden unsullied by the events of the past 75 years.
Every generation has a moment when they lost their innocence. For many of us of a certain age, it is the Kennedy assassination. For others, it is 9/11. For the Greatest Generation, it is Pearl Harbor. When we honor events like Pearl Harbor (or any cataclysmic event) we are not only mourning the loss of life but also our own lost notion of a different, better “what if” before history stepped in and wrote our future (now present day) in unchangeable stone.
Tora, Tora, Tora! (1970) will be aired tonight on TCM at 8pm EST.