A Lesson Learned?

December 07, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

When Japanese planes swept across Pearl Harbor 52 years ago today, bombing and strafing, they taught the United States a bitter lesson that some survivors of that ferocious surprise attack believe is being lost on the country.

"Our motto is 'Keep America Alert,' and that's what we Survivors try to do," said Richard L. Brown, 75, of Timonium, who was in the war from start to finish.

He was a young seaman on the USS West Virginia when a half dozen torpedoes and numerous bombs sank her at her Battleship Row mooring that December morning. Nearly four years later, on Sept. 2, 1945, he looked down from the superstructure of the USS Missouri and watched the Japanese High Command sign the articles of surrender aboard the battleship in Tokyo Bay.

Gerald W. Hamill was an aircraft mechanic at Hickam Field, one of the prime Japanese targets. He watched, helpless, as enemy bombs destroyed the cream of the Army Air Service.

Myrtle M. Watson was a young Army nurse on duty at Schofield Hospital. She worked feverishly during the three days after the attack, with little help, with few supplies and with no sleep. The dead, dying and wounded arrived in a seemingly endless stream.

These three are among the 300 Maryland members of the 14,000-member Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. The PHSA "is a unique association, the only one of its kind. We have a bond of where we were and what we did," said Mrs. Watson.

For the Survivors and for others, Dec. 7, 1941, will always be the "date which will live in infamy."

"Remember Pearl Harbor" became a rallying cry for Americans, and the refrain in a popular song heard throughout the land in the those early, dark days of war.

More than a half-century later, some Survivors believe America might be vulnerable to another brutal surprise. They believe a dangerous air of neoisolationism and complacency is abroad in the land and there seems to be little sense of history, particularly among young people.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has eased but not eliminated the threat of nuclear war, asserts Mr. Hamill, 73, of Towson. He is coordinating this year's remembrance ceremony, which will be held in the Inner Harbor at 12:15 p.m. today aboard the Constellation.

The Friends of the Baltimore Maritime Museum will hold a simultaneous ceremony aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Roger B. Taney, the last warship still afloat that fought at Pearl Harbor. The ceremony will be held at the south end of Pier 4 behind the National Aquarium Mammal Pavilion. At 12:55 p.m., the local time of the attack, a police helicopter will drop a memorial wreath into the harbor.

Mr. Hamill sees parallels between today and the situation before world war broke out in 1939.

"There is complacency and bickering; people were not involved in what was going on in the world. We were isolationist then, and we can't afford it now," he said. "If we don't stay alert and keep America strong we could have another day of infamy, from one of these dictators who are toying with the atomic bomb."

Mr. Brown was reported lost in action after the attack on Pearl Harbor. His parents even held a memorial service for him. Barely three weeks later, on Christmas Eve 1941, they got the good news that he was alive.

Death and destruction

During nearly four years of war, Mr. Brown witnessed indescribable scenes of death and destruction. In 1942, he survived the burning and sinking of the aircraft carrier USS Lexington after the Battle of the Coral Sea. Yet, it is a moment of peace amid chaos that he remembers.

Two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he and several shipmates returned to the West Virginia, which had settled upright on the harbor bottom.

"The water was knee-deep in our compartment. My locker was at the foot of the ladder, right below the hatch, and everything in it was burned to a crisp," he said. "The next locker belonged to a man who was very religious; everything in it was also burned except his Bible. That gave us more faith to go on."

It is important to "Remember Pearl Harbor" each year, Mr. Hamill said, "because [the sneak attack] shows how complacency and inattention to the world and its politics can erode our freedom and our ability to survive as a nation."

The Japanese attack on Oahu included five airfields and the Schofield Barracks besides the naval installations at Pearl Harbor. The toll was high; more than 2,400 military and civilian dead, almost half aboard the battleship USS Arizona. Scores of airplanes, most caught on the ground by the surprise attack, were destroyed. Nearly 20 vessels, battleships, cruisers and destroyers, were sunk, capsized or severely damaged.

The Pearl Harbor veterans say they believe that the current generation of young Americans is too self-absorbed. "We're losing our sense of history," Mr. Hamill said. "People tend to take everything for granted and the young people aren't aware of why are a great country. It didn't just happen."

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