Remembering Pearl Harbor

October 13, 1991|By Martin Merzer | Martin Merzer,Knight-Ridder News Service

Honolulu -- They are determined to maintain the dignity, the solemnity of the event. To inadvertently use the word "celebration" when referring to the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is to invite rebuke.

Round-number birthdays and anniversaries often receive special notice. Few will be as widely or as somberly observed as the 50th anniversary of Dec. 7, 1941, that "day which will live in infamy," in the grim words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. During the first week of December, President Bush, thousands of survivors of the attack and many relatives of those who died that day will attend a series of ceremonies centered around the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

The simple memorial spans the sunken battleship Arizona, where 1,102 men remain entombed. It is a profoundly moving place.

And during that special week in December, you can be there, too. The general public is invited to most of the events, but before we proceed any further, an important piece of advice: If you are interested in attending, carry this newspaper over to the telephone and call an airline or a travel agent. Airline seats already are scarce. Hotel rooms are going quickly. Rates for both are on the rise.

The interest in this commemoration is simply phenomenal. Organizers knew they would have to deal with crowds, and worse, a media herd. But they never anticipated the magnitude of emotion that accompanies many of the inquiries.

"It's hard to articulate the level of interest," said James Harpster, coordinator of anniversary activities for the National Park Service, which oversees the Arizona Memorial. "We've had people pouring out their hearts, remembering those days."

The memorial is the most visible, but by no means the only, point of interest still visible on the island of Oahu 50 years after a shocking event that catapulted America into a world war and transformed the nation.

This year, during that first week in December and particularly between Dec. 4 and Dec. 7, all of these historic sites again will be in the spotlight. Newspapers and magazines plan special coverage. Networks already compete for vantage points and satellite linkups.

The park service is only one of many government agencies and private groups planning events for that week in Oahu. Observances will be conducted at several other military bases, although most of those will be only for personnel who served there or survivors of people who died there.

In addition, the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association expects 5,000 of its 13,000 members and many of their relatives to attend a Dec. 7 sunrise ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, which overlooks Honolulu and Pearl Harbor.

Commonly called Punchbowl, it is the serene resting place of thousands of soldiers and their families.

It also is Hawaii's most popular tourist destination, certainly a strange distinction for a cemetery. Six million people visit it every year.

On Dec. 7, it will belong mostly, but not exclusively, to the veterans of Pearl Harbor. They are quite old now. For some, this will be the last big anniversary.

"This is a day when we want to sit there and thank God that alive," said Gerald Glaubitz, national president of the survivors' association. "But we also want to thank the people who gave their lives so this country would remain free.

"For many of my people, this will be the last time they make it back here. I get goose bumps when I think of all the things that are going to happen that week in Hawaii."

Mr. Harpster, event coordinator at the Arizona Memorial, hears things like that every day.

"I think part of the response has to be something that we share in common among what I call 'the Pearl Harbor generation.' Pearl Harbor was and remains a touchstone for people my age."

Mr. Harpster is 64, and he is quite right. Just as people of the following generation remember precisely where they were and what they were doing when they learned of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, people of Mr. Harpster's generation remember all too well the moment they heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Here is a brief review of what happened on that Sunday morning 50 years ago:

At 7:55 a.m., before any declaration of war was presented and without warning, waves of Japanese aircraft attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor.

The fighters and bombers also assaulted airplanes, barracks and anything else they could hit at other military facilities throughout the island.

Caught by surprise, American defenders managed to respond with some antiaircraft fire and a few aircraft sorties, but the defense was largely ineffective.

When it ended, about two hours later, the toll was fearsome: 2,403 Americans dead, 1,178 wounded.

Eighteen ships were sunk or seriously damaged; hundreds of planes were destroyed or rendered inoperative.

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