49 years later, still remembering the 'Day of Infamy'

William F. Eckert

December 07, 1990|By William F. Eckert

LAST WEEK, I returned from a trip I had looked forward to since childhood. Hawaii has always been for me the ultimate place to visit: enchanting South Pacific Islands, soft music, alluring hula dancers . . . and Pearl Harbor.

During World War II, I was a high school student living with my sister in a two-room apartment under the elevated train tracks in Philadelphia, while her husband and our two brothers went off to war. Together, we survived a poverty-level income, rationing, blackouts and the fear of those dreaded telegrams to the next of kin. If you're old enough, you remember the feeling.

The National Memorial Cemetery William F.Eckertof the Pacific is located in Punchbowl Crater, Honolulu. Rows of gray tablets showing specific names and dates mark a path leading to a monumental stairway and a gallery of mosaic mural maps detailing the major battles of the South Pacific. Newspaper headlines that had been etched into my mind in my youth came screaming to the surface as I read and recalled those years of bitter anguish for all Americans. I waited patiently at each mural for that choked-up feeling to abate. I moved to the next mural -- and it happened again.

When you look down at the waters surrounding the USS Arizona, it's hard to believe 1,102 Americans are entombed there. There were 34 sets of brothers and one father-son combination. The average age was 19. As I stared at the rusted hull below, a single drop of oil rose from the ship. It's a phenomenon that has been going on for nearly half a century. Human imagination could not have conceived a more poignant "eternal flame."

Two nights later, in my hotel room, I watched an interesting ceremony on television. On the mainland, a sad old man was being compensated for America's reaction to that Pearl Harbor attack. He was one of 120,000 Japanese-Americans who had been confined by the U.S. government at the beginning of the war. Had I seen the report a few weeks earlier, I might have been more sympathetic.

Was the surprise and fear of those innocent people we interned any greater than that of the American sailor as he met a wall of sea water while trying to escape the USS Arizona? Did the Japanese-Americans feel more sorrow, disillusionment and --ed expectations than the parents who lost sons in the Pearl Harbor attack?

Where does repayment begin for the actions of Japan or the reactions of America during this terrible war? And if we do begin, where does it all end? How can the nation that began this war ever repay those poor victims of Pearl Harbor, the victims of the Bataan death march, Corregidor, Wake Island, Iwo Jima? How can the nation that ended that war repay those innocent victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Did we overreact?

Mistakes were made during World War II, and it is noble for a great nation to admit them. But was it necessary to go to the extreme of a congressional and presidential apology? While a formal display of contrition, by an attacked nation, may appear magnanimous to some, I fear that there are others who would consider it a slap in the face.

"Let's Remember Pearl Harbor," we sang as a rallying song during those memorable years. And the second line began: "We will always remember . . ."

How soon we forget!

William F. Eckert writes from Ellicott City.

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