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Remembering Pearl Harbor

History is broken down into the moments we remember about our own lives, like weddings and birthdays and graduations, and then there are days when we pause to remember together, as a nation, an event that affected us all.

Pearl Harbor Day, just passed, when Japanese pilots attacked American navy ships north of Honolulu, is one of those, even though it's now more than 7 decades passed. Commentator Dan Patterson finds himself finds himself turning it over and over in his mind.

The loss of life was shocking.  The loss of big ships with big guns was stunning.  America was justifiably enraged.  On that day the nature of the US Navy changed forever.

Credit Dan Patterson
Shimmering oil leaking from the USS Arizona and flowing past the Missouri to the sea.

Last year I visited Pearl Harbor.  It was a quiet Sunday morning much like it was in 1941.  I remembered my parents talking about where they had been that day as well as what had happened there.  Dad was seeing a movie right here in Dayton, a western, I think, and he told me they stopped the film, turned the lights on, announced the attack, and then everyone went home.  A few weeks later he enlisted in the army.  My mother also enlisted in the army and that is how they met 68 years ago.  So my family's story, maybe yours too, was shaped by the events of the attack. 

When I went to Pearl Harbor, I was not prepared for what I found.  The thunderclap of history struck in a very small place, smaller than downtown Dayton.  When you get to the visitors center, the USS Arizona memorial is a across the harbor; to the left is the battleship Missouri.  Those two ships represent the beginning and the end of the Pacific war.  The Arizona beneath the surface still leaks oil which flows past the Missouri and towards the open sea.  11,000 sailors trapped inside the Arizona's hull are entombed there.  In recent years, surviving shipmates have chosen to have their remains returned there to be with their shipmates. 

That morning before the attack there were over nine battleships and over thirty other types moored around the harbor.  It was really small; you could put it inside Wright Field here in Dayton.  The Japanese pilots were flying faster modern aircraft, and in about ten seconds they had to cross a line of trees, descend to about fifty feet, line up on their targets, drop their torpedo - all the time keeping their airspeed where it needed to be and then pull up crashing into the ships.

Most Americans believed that the Japanese were flying slow and old airplanes that could be easily defeated by whatever the US military had at the time.  The morning of December 7th saw a vastly superior force, expertly flying modern aircraft.  They flew the hell out of their airplanes, and this surprised America far more than the attack itself.

After Pearl Harbor, we knew that we were facing a capable and determined enemy.  From then on, it was all about air power.  Four months later, Colonel Jimmy Doolittle led the first air attack on Japan.

Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com

Aviation programming on WYSO is supported in part by the National Aviation Heritage Alliance and The Air Force Museum Foundation.