Last night, I went to the Annual Pearl Harbor Memorial Dinner hosted by the San Francisco Commandery of the Naval Order of the United States. It was, as I knew it would be, a significantly smaller event than the annual Midway Commemoration dinner. That’s reasonable, because the latter celebrates a stunning victory, while the former is a solemn commemoration of the loss of too many innocent lives. While it may have been small, though, it was a lovely evening. I likened the Pearl Harbor commemoration to a perfect little pearl, while the Midway evening is a big, glowing diamond.
Three Pearl Harbor survivors attending the evening. That is an impressive number when you think that the youngest of them was 87. Of the three, two spoke, although one spoke only to introduce the other. I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t have their names. I didn’t think to write them down, and my memory is so bad, I’ve already forgotten. Still, even though I can’t name these men, I can describe them. The first of the two speakers couldn’t have been a day younger than 87, but he looked around 75. More than that, he had a joie de vivre, a buoyancy, that is hard to describe. He radiated light and life. Whatever his secret is, I want to know it. I suspect, from the great pleasure he showed in introducing his friend, that one of the secrets is that he likes people.
The second Pearl Harbor survivor, the one who actually gave a little talk about that day, was not in the line of fire on December 7, 1941, but nevertheless had an utterly horrible experience both on December 7 and in the days after. When the attack happened, he was a 17-year-old Navy medic. He spent the first day tending hundreds of wounded, more than half of whom died from burns. The second day, he was moved to the morgue and tasked with identifying the corpses, a nightmarish experience that involved injecting saline into burned fingers in an effort to recover fingerprints, or slicing away at the dead men’s cheeks, in order to reveal teeth for dental record matches.
The burden of his service in those days still weighs heavily on the speaker. He said, and I believe him wholeheartedly, that the things he saw that day are things that he will never forget. He saw some more unforgettable sights during the war. He continued to serve after Pearl Harbor, and ended up getting seriously wounded while performing as a medic at Guadalcanal. It is a testament to his strength, mental and physical, that he stood before us yesterday and spoke so movingly about the events from seventy years ago.
The main speaker was Rear Admiral Tom Brown III (Ret.). Adm. Brown has an impressive resume: nearly 5,000 flight hours, 1,017 carrier arrested landings and, during three deployments in Vietnam, 343 combat missions. But wait! There’s more!
His decorations include the Silver Star, Defense Superior Service Medal, five Legions of Merit (one with Combat “V”), four Distinguished Flying Crosses, 36 Air Medals, and the Navy Commendation Medal with Combat “V”. [From the evening’s program.]
Not a bad record for a 7th grade math teacher! Yes, after the war, he taught 7th grade math, which he jokingly refers to as one of the hardest jobs he had. I wonder if his students appreciated the caliber of man who stood before him.
Adm. Brown’s speech focused on just a few of the reasons the Navy got caught flat-footed at Pearl Harbor. His conclusions did not reflect well on civilian leadership in Washington, D.C. at the beginning of the 1940s. I hope I’m summarizing Adm. Brown correctly when I say that the three points he made during his speech were as follows: (1) The military knew something was coming from Japan, and tried its darndest to arouse interest in Washington, D.C. The capitol, however, had an isolationist Congress that was resolutely impervious to the threat from Japan and it refused to provide Pearl Harbor with the resources it needed. (2) Washington, D.C., had access to pivotal communications about Japanese plans and failed to make them available to the Pearl Harbor command. I knew this, already, but it shocks me all over again every time I hear it. (3) The Japanese, despite the superficial success of their attack, made five fatal errors.
Because I have a pathetic memory, sitting here today, I can only remember three Japanese errors, instead of five, but I’ll pass those three along to you anyway:
- Attacking showy targets, when they should have attacked the oil storage or other infrastructure;
- Destroying only three ships, since the rest of the ships at Pearl Harbor were repaired (with some fighting at Midway); and
- Destroying old weapons, which catapulted the U.S. into fighting a war with modern weapons, rather than decrepit WWI remnants.
As for the other two mistakes, if I remember them, I’ll pass them on to you.
I’ll add one mistake that Adm. Brown didn’t mention, which is underestimating the American people in the middle of the 20th century. The isolationism that characterized D.C. worked only because the world was so far away. When Japan brought the world to America’s doorstep, her isolationism ended with a roar.
The evening was — as these NOUS evenings always are — moving and enjoyable. If you live in a community with a NOUS Commandery, you might want to get to know that organization.