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GTBT: Pearl Harbor

Editor's Note: This post was originally slated to be published yesterday, December 7th, 2021, the 80th anniversary of the Attack on Pearl Harbor. But for reasons (see below) it is being published today.

Author's Note: It has come to my attention that the owner / editor-in-chief of this internet publication has recently undergone a difficult medical episode. Let me assure you that while he and I have had our share of differences over this part year or more, I do not “generally” wish him harm and would even go so far to say I hope he gets well "soon".

But make no mistake, this is Flappr’s darkest hour. So much hangs in the balance… So very much...

Nowadays, we in the West think of the Japanese as that happy-go-lucky people from some kind of faraway enchanted land. An almost magical people who bring us stupendous techno-gizmos, fuel-economical cars, and those stupefying seizure-inducing cartoon shows my grandkids used to watch – all of which, I am convinced, are utterly incomprehensible.

But let me tell you about the days when the Japanese were not so happy-go-lucky. Let me tell you about the days when the Japanese were truly terrifying, when the mere mention of the name was enough to send shivers down your spine, and when in one horrible moment, we realized we were far from invulnerable.

Let me tell you about Pearl Harbor.

Firstly, I should get out of the way that I was actually around for this one – albeit in larval stage. I wish I could say I remember more, except that my aunt and uncle came over, and maybe also a neighbor, and they were all huddled around the radio when the news came in. The only other memory I have is swallowing a purple crayon I found on the floor and my mother just about beating me over the head with a frying pan.

But that’s it. That’s my Pearl Harbor story. Anyone who was alive at the time had one – and most of them are less than pointless. Only a few can be called the real Pearl Harbor stories, and the real ones go something like this:

It was a stunning Sunday morning in Oahu. Most of the denizens were only just rolling out of bed or starting their morning routines when they began to hear a curious drone building in the distance. Scampering outside or glancing out a window, they instinctively turned their heads to the sky, where they beheld hundreds of black specks silhouetted against the clouds... all approaching quickly.

In some ways, this wasn’t so strange. Anyone who lived in or around the great American naval base at Pearl Harbor was used to seeing airplanes coming and going at all hours. But the eyewitnesses on that day all agree there was something fishy about the sight. Something ominous. Why were the planes coming from such strange directions, many people asked, and why were there so many of them? Was it a training exercise? Was it part of some ceremony? In a handful of minutes, they got their answer.

At 7:48 A.M. Hawaiian Time, the Imperial Navy of Japan threw the most notorious (and most devastating) sucker-punch of all time. Wave after wave of red-dotted warplanes banked into acrobatic dives over the enormous sleepy harbor. At the chosen moment, the Japanese pilots released their bombs, and soon hundreds of explosions rippled through the tightly packed American warships. Other planes dropped their torpedoes – the real killer that day – and eerie white lines of foam appeared just below the surface of the water, drawing inexorably closer to the line of ships known as Battleship Row.

Well, it was like kids shooting bottles off a fence-rail. The torpedoes found their marks and exploded with huge muffled booms, lifting the massive ships halfway out of the water and cleaving great gashes below the waterline. The sailors below decks, many of whom had been roused just moments before, were doomed.

The battleship USS Arizona took it the worst. One torpedo struck her forward magazine and she exploded in a blazing fireball. What was left of her began sinking at once. Meanwhile, the Oklahoma was riddled with smaller blasts and started rolling onto her side. The West Virginia was in flames. The California was sinking and her crew abandoned ship. Several other cruisers and smaller ships were in fellow states of agony. American boys were in the water, struggling through patches of oil and flame, dodging the zipping trails of machine-gun bullets fired from strafing Japanese fighters.

It was chaos. Pandemonium. Carnage. One big godawful mess.

Just like that, in less than ten minutes, the Japanese had knocked out the pride of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. Subsequent attack waves would worsen the damage, but the main blow had been struck. The Arizona would sink, taking 1,200 souls along with her. By the end of the day, another 1,300 American servicemen would join them.

And yet... It was a hollow victory. As the Japanese had just demonstrated, the era of the battleship, those armored giants of the seas, was over. The age of the aircraft carrier had dawned, and luckily, all three of the U.S.'s Pacific carriers were away at sea when the attack occurred. In time, this would prove to be the navy's saving grace – but for the present, everything seemed lost.

The Japanese Imperial Fleet was at the peak of its powers that day. Within hours, it unwound a furious combination of blows across the Pacific. Japanese aircraft would soon appear like wraiths above Malaysia, the Philippines, Wake Island, and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), leaving a trail of scorched wreckage wherever they went.

lthough in later years and battles, Japan would witness its vaunted pilot corps dwindle away, its finest officers shot out of the sky or sunk to the briny deep, on that fateful morning in 1941, the Japanese pilots were at the top of their game. They were the elite of the elite, and it is doubtful we shall ever see their like again.

If you know anything at all about the Japanese, you should know that whenever they do anything, they do it with that fullness of concentration and purpose that lies at the heart of their national character. Before a Japanese pilot could even reach the controls of his airplane, he underwent a rigorous training program that can best be described as mind-boggling. He was forced to sit in a tiny room for days and catch flies in his hands – not kill them, mind you, just catch them. He was trained to navigate by the stars, and some pilots could even locate stars in daylight. He was taught how to sleep in his cockpit as he flew for thousands of miles alone above the trackless sea, only to wake up at a prearranged time and hone in on his target.

These were the mysterious enemies who appeared suddenly out of the skies on that infamous day 80 years ago. Most Americans knew next to nothing about them, but it did not take long for this benign ignorance to transform into blistering hatred.

The war American waged against Japan would be much unlike the war it waged against Germany – who (for reasons we will never know) declared war against America a few days later – this war was a personal one. The Japanese surprise attack was, to western minds, a violation of one of the most sacred points of honor: You do not strike your enemy when his back is turned.

Of course, the Japanese also had their own complex ideas about honor, which would reveal themselves in horrendous suicide attacks and bone-chilling doomed charges. This war would be a mad brutal bitter fistfight from beginning to end, culminating in the gruesome firebombing of Japanese cities, and its most hideous apotheosis: the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But the Japanese, after all, had brought it upon themselves. They paid dearly for their dreams of imperial conquest. By the end, their nation was so thoroughly destroyed, its manhood so thoroughly squandered away, that all that remains of the once invincible Empire of Japan is a ghostly memory. A few wrecked hulls of warplanes scattered in shallow coral atolls are her only monuments. The last living memories of that time and that nation have all gone to their rest.

Pearl Harbor... Good thing, bad thing...? It’s hard to say. The world is much improved with the burial of the Empire of Japan, but the sacrifices required in that endeavor must never be discounted. I suppose you could say the same about so many wars across the ages. Maybe, "good thing, bad thing" is hardly the question even to ask.

It seems I'm in a reflective mood these days. It occurred to me recently that I’m not getting any younger. To read about the death of Bob Dole suddenly reminded me that almost all of my boyhood heroes are gone. Those American Tars and GI's who fearlessly went tramping around the world, setting everything right – you have know idea how much we loved them, how much we wished to be like them. And their commanders – Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur, Nimitz, Halsey – they were like gods.

I wonder if we shall ever see their like again too. Indeed, I wonder if the nation even has the hard-stuff inside it to fight a third world war, or whether easy wealth and careless amusements have ruined us beyond repair. I certainly hope we do have a solid stern something buried at the center of us, because you never know what frightful news will break, one morning when you least expect it...

Not too many zingers in this one. I apologize for that, but otherwise,

Do your reading,

James O’Flannery


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