My husband is something of a connoisseur of National Memorials, having been born and raised in Gettysburg, PA. So on our recent visit to Hawaii we fulfilled his long-held wish to visit the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.
The monument now bears the cumbersome official title of “World War II Valor in the Pacific Nation Monument-Hawaii.” Not only could we visit the shrine over the sunken hulk of the USS Arizona with most of its crew permanently interred inside, but also tour the USS Missouri, on which the final surrender was signed by the Japanese, and the submarine USS Bowfin. Large interactive exhibitions explain the lead-up to Pearl Harbor, the attack, and the role of submarines in World War II. An excellent audio tour led us through the exhibits located both in the galleries and around the grounds, ending at a theater giving even more vivid detail about the attack.
It had been a quiet Sunday morning, some of the sailors still in their bunks recoving from the gaieties of Saturday night, others about to raise the flag to signal the official beginning of duties, when the Japanese planes roared in. The attack was finely targeted to take out the US battleships, lined up neatly on Battleship Row. Over a thousand men died in the USS Arizona alone when it sank to the bottom of the harbor with no way out.
Of the 2403 people killed that day, only 49 were civilians. But this was still the largest number of civilian deaths due to military action on US soil since the Civil War, and remains the largest number today, (discounting 9-11-01 as a terrorist, not a military action.)\The US and Canada were unique among the major combatant nations in WWII in having almost no civilian fatalities on their own soil. Russia lost over 4.5 million civilians, Germany over two million, Japan three million, and China over twenty million. Civilians in Great Britain, France, and Italy died in the hundreds of thousands. But the war stayed far away from us. Including the 49 lost on December 7, 1941, mainly due to faulty anti-aircraft shells falling in residential areas, the total civilian deaths on US soil came to 55.
US civilians have been sheltered from war by our broad ocean boundaries to east and west, and our good neighbors to north and south. Except for the Civil War, we have always been able to keep our wars on other people’s territory. During the current wars in the Mid-East we send our “military advisers” far afield with our drones and our missiles, and if a few of them blunder across a home-made land mine or get caught in crossfire, we might heave a sigh as we read about it at the bottom of page 4 of the newspaper.
Both my brothers are Army veterans. Both spent a good part of their service overseas. One was repeatedly shot at, the other wasn’t. Both survived without physical injury, but not without mental and emotional scars. I am tremendously proud of both of them. They signed up to to be strangers in a hostile land, to run risks , to be targeted, so that you and I could be comfortable.
Our soldiers, sailors and air force are our gladiators, fighting our proxy battles in foreign arenas, so that we can be safe in our homes from invasion. Don’t wait until Memorial Day to honor the dead, but smile at a living person in uniform today, while he or she can smile back.