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Jewish World Review / Dec. 7 1998 / 18 Kislev, 5759

Don Feder

Don Feder The day America lost its innocence

IT WAS A DAY OF TREACHERY, a day of heroism, a day that would "live in infamy." It was the day America paid a terrible price for unpreparedness, lost its innocence and took its place on the world stage.

At 7:55 a.m., the first wave -- 48 Nakajima-97 bombers, 51 Aichi dive bombers and 43 swift and deadly Zeroes -- came over Oahu's northern tip. Ahead of them, 94 vessels of the U.S. Pacific Fleet lay at anchor, glistening in the morning sun.

The leader of the first wave, Capt. Mitsuo Fuchida, poetically described his bombs dropping "like devils of doom."

An hour and 45 minutes later, all eight battleships had been knocked out, along with nine cruisers and a number of destroyers. A total of 188 planes were destroyed on the ground. As they winged back to their carriers, the Japanese pilots left 2,330 Americans dead or dying. The USS Arizona suffered a direct hit that smashed through the deck and detonated in a forward magazine. A tower of flame shot up 500 feet. The Arizona went down with more than 1,000 men aboard.

Near Hickham Field, a Navy chaplain, who was preparing an outdoor service, grabbed a machine gun, set it up on the altar and began firing at passing planes.

A commander on the bridge of the USS Ramapo, tears streaming down his face, blasted away with a pistol; a bosun's mate threw wrenches at low-flying planes. On the USS San Francisco, a young engineer told an ensign, "Thought I'd come up and die with you."

Of 15 Medals of Honor awarded that day, eight were posthumous. On the West Virginia, Capt. Mervyn Bennion, wounded in the abdomen by shrapnel, refused to leave the bridge and continued giving orders until he died.

At Kaneohe naval base, Chief Aviation Ordnanceman John Finn set up a machine gun near a hangar and fired at incoming Zeroes.

"Although painfully wounded many times," Finn's Medal of Honor citation reads, "he continued to man his gun and to return the enemy's fire vigorously, and with telling effect throughout the enemy's strafing and bombing attacks, and with complete disregard for his personal saftey."

The bravery of Pearl's defenders was inspirational. The devastation was avoidable. In August 1940, American cryptographers cracked the highest Japanese diplomatic code. On Nov. 22, 1941, they intercepted an intriguing message to Japanese envoys negotiating with the Roosevelt administration warning that in about a week "things are automatically going to happen."

The preceding January, our ambassador to Japan reported a "lot of talk around town" that in case of a break with the United States, the Japanese were planning "a surprise mass attack on Pearl Harbor."

In July 1941, the chief of the Navy War Plans Division named Hawaii as the "probable" target of a Japanese air attack. At the same time, Navy Secretary Frank Knox wrote to Secretary of War Henry Stimson, "Hostilities would be initiated by a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor." Days before Fuchida's "devils of doom" fell, the FBI reported that the Japanese consulate in Honolulu was burning its diplomatic papers.

Despite these warnings, there were no special guards on any of the ships at Pearl. The fleet was on its loosest alert. Only 25 percent of its anti-aircraft guns were manned, and half of the officers were on shore leave.

As a cost-cutting measure, weekend reconnaissance flights were canceled. At the airfields, planes were lined up wingtip to wingtip, to guard against sabotage, making them perfect targets for aerial bombing.

Pearl Harbor was the beginning of nearly four years of incessant warfare in the Pacific. Americans learned the names of heretofore obscure islands like Guadalcanal, Tarawa and Iwo Jima. By Sept. 2, 1945, Imperial Japan and its ally Nazi Germany resembled nothing so much as the wreckage of the Arizona.

The day that was to live in infamy heralded the dawn of American supremacy. This nation went on to fight for civilization in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf.

While we grew up internationally, were the lessons of Pearl Harbor ever really learned?

This July, the Rumsfeld Commission, headed by a former defense secretary, reported that countries like Iran and North Korea could "acquire the means to strike the U.S. within about five years of a decision to build" a ballistic missile equipped with a nuclear or chemical warhead.

Thanks to Clinton's opposition to an anti-missile defense, we could have zero warning of a nuclear/biological sneak attack.

The ghosts of Pearl Harbor won't rest until their sacrifice is honored with a commitment to allow no repetition of this tragic chapter in our history.


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©1998, Boston Herald; distributed by Creators Syndicate, Inc.