- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2006

The first time any Americans saw them on this date in 1941, they were tiny dots coming over the mountain on Oahu, growing bigger and bigger as they sped toward the huge U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor.

Without a pause, the dots turned into Japanese warplanes that swooped into screaming dives to spread death and destruction on the proud Pacific Fleet, leaving Battleship Row a smoking and bloody tangled mess of ruined ships.

On virtually the other side of the world, a 7-year-old boy lay on his stomach in his Alexandria home, reading the Sunday comics and listening to the radio broadcast of the Washington Redskins football game.

Though I could look it up, I prefer not to remember the score of the game — or even who won — submerged as it is in the recollections of how World War II became a reality in my life. All during the broadcast, one could hear echoing through old Griffith Stadium public-address calls for Army colonels and generals and Navy captains and admirals to report to their offices.

Finally, a frantic announcer gave the bulletin: The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor, a vital U.S. outpost in Hawaii but one I had never heard of. In those days before Hawaii became a state, not many Americans knew about “Pearl” — or much about the world outside the United States.

A nation that began that war in blissful and almost complete ignorance of global geography, in four years received an extensive education as Americans fought and died and ultimately triumphed on battlefields around the world.

On December 7, 1941 — the “date which will live in infamy” — more than 2,400 Americans were killed and thousands more wounded. Before the war ended, thousands upon thousands more would swell the number of casualties.

The damage to materiel that day was tremendous. Five of the eight battleships were sunk or otherwise rendered helpless; the remaining three were severely damaged. Nine other warships were badly damaged, 188 aircraft destroyed, and landing strips and hangars reduced to shambles. Other strategic installations — the oil tanks and the Navy Yard facilities to maintain and repair the wounded fleet — came through the sneak attack intact and served as the key hub to carry the war to the Japanese.

World War II burst into my life in a very personal way: The Corps of Engineers colonel who lived next door came to our house. He handed my father a power of attorney in case his wife had trouble selling their home or in dealing with the myriad challenges she and their children would face. When next seen in Alexandria four years later, he was a major general. He had spent the entire war in the Pacific, leaving the United States before the end of the month and not returning until the fighting was finished.

The Japanese had hoped that their pre-emptive strike would leave the United States helpless and discouraged, with no desire to fight back. Instead, it served to unite the country in a way that has not been matched since. Recruiting centers around the country were swamped by volunteers young and old. One of the not-so-young was a college professor named Paul Douglas, who joined the Marines in his 40s. After the war, he became a U.S. senator from Illinois.

My father, who was about the same age, also tried to enlist but was told he would be more valuable continuing as a civilian administrator. He spent the war working ungodly hours for six days most weeks in the Bureau of Economic Warfare. It was an agency secret enough that it didn’t officially exist until the last year or so of the war.

Washington was jammed with people doing the same thing. An army of women arrived in the nation’s capital to take on the work left by the men who joined the services. The same happened in plants, offices and farms across the country. It was a total national effort, with sacrifices made and shared by all.

Now, two hangars at the Ford Island’s Airfield are being turned into museum buildings — one to honor the airmen who served in the Pacific Theater of World War II, the other for the airmen of Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War.

One could make comparisons between our country then and now, but what would that serve? While the United States was far from a perfect place in the winter of 1941-2, it still was able to rise up collectively to turn back a monstrous and deadly challenge to our whole democratic existence. And the challenge was met for the most part without infringing upon personal liberties.

Thank heavens we had leaders then who knew how to win a war.

Stroube Smith, a former copy editor for The Washington Times, is a free-lance writer.

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