It took a few days for the words “Pearl Harbor” to take root in the national vocabulary.

Initial reports about the surprise attack on U.S. forces, published Dec. 7, 1941, in a Daily News extra edition, all carried Honolulu datelines.

Associated Press correspondent Eugene Burns mentioned the base on the south end of Oahu, headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, here and there in a series of sharp, urgent dispatches from the scene. But, for the most part, ground zero of one of the biggest stories of the 20th century was just Hawaii.

A few from seafaring Galveston County probably had been there, but most people had no reason to think much about an island chain 4,000 miles away.

Some may have had at least a sense that the massive gravity of the event would, like the passing of a large planet, bend the trajectories of their lives, sending them off in unforeseen directions. Most probably did not.

A colleague recalled his father’s story of that infamous day. He was 17, in a field playing touch football with high school chums when the news arrived. He realized in that instant that everything had changed. He and his friends were about to be taken up by forces too large to fully comprehend and be transported to wholly different fields of contest.

For many, the day marked the beginning of the end of a long period of too little work. Soon, as the nation geared up for war, there was more work than skilled hands to do it. All over the country, people driven from their land by the Great Depression were drawn to cities and jobs in the booming war industry.

It was, for many, the first taste of a rootlessness that would help define the country in the years after the war.

A few days after the attack, The New York Times published three words that would resonate across the country and echo down through the years: “Remember Pearl Harbor.”

That was no great innovation by Times editors. They derived it from “Remember the Maine,” which may itself have been copied, perhaps, from “Remember the Alamo.”

Americans rallied to the thought, anyway. Boys put away their footballs and took up seabags and M1 Garands. Most of everybody else dug in to do what they could, even if that was just to wait, as the old saying goes.

In the years that came after, Americans and the rest of world learned what we are made of, and what we can make. Perhaps above all else we learned that the maintenance of individual liberty sometimes requires huge collective action, courage, sacrifice and resolve.

Americans have remembered Pearl Harbor and the lessons it taught about courage, sacrifice and resolve, the fleeting nature of life, how everything can change in an instant.

And that’s our job today — just to remember.

• Michael A. Smith

Editor’s note: A version of this editorial appeared in The Daily News on Dec. 7, 2014.

Michael A. Smith: 409-683-5206;


(7) comments

Don Schlessinger

If it weren't for America's Greatest Generation WW II would have had a different ending. Unfortunately if a similar situation arouse today America would be knee deep in poop. We were a different nation then.

Carlos Ponce

Don, give credit to the men and women of the Armed Forces. In a similar situation they would resemble the best of the Greatest Generation.And most Americans would rise to the occasion to do their part. But when it comes to the Liberal run universities and colleges - that's where America falls short.

Steve Fouga

'Arc Light' is an outstanding novel describing how a modern WW III might unfold. It's speculative fiction but, from what I know, it's based on solid research. Given the current state of play among the U.S., China, Russia, Germany, N.Korea, etc., it rings true despite being written in the 90s. A combination techno- political- military-thriller. I agree with Carlos that our military would rise to the occasion, and apparently Eric Harry, the author, does too.

Don Schlessinger

Sorry Carlos we'll have to disagree on this one. I spent 28 years in the military (active and Guard), my son just retired with 22+ years Army, my father 4 years Army Air Corps during WWII. I feel I have a little insight into the subject, and great respect for the men and women of our current military. The last time we came together for our country was 9/11. But we were a different nation then also, I can't see that happening again.

Don Schlessinger

And Carlos, America will never have another Greatest Generation.

Carlos Ponce

That would be sad.[sad] But there are some Great Kids out there! I know quite a few.

David Hardee

Michael Smith’s article is a well written thought provoking piece. It gave us no conclusions but transported us back to a seminal event that affected all humanity. Each year on December 7 our country takes a moment and reflects on how WWII resurrected America from the great depression and gave us the great generation. The corresponding death of George W Bush close to the date of December 7 once more brought the ”great generation” into social conscience.
As a great grandfather I live on the cusp of December 7, 1940 along with my other sectarians experienced Pearl Harbor how it forced America to join Great Britain’s heroic stand alone war against Nazism. In that era of desperation the greatest generation was born. Man will do heroic things in desperation.
That time (world war two) and events are merely foot notes to the majority of the population of the United States today. Generations called generation X’s, centennial’s, millennium’s and the current generation have little knowledge and less interest in the events of the great generation. Ask them about the “the Maine”, “the Alamo”, “Enola Gay” and observe their response. To many of them these were atrocities. San Juan Hill were invaders, Texans stole from Mexico and Hiroshima was a despicable act.
When Johnny came marching home from WWII American Society began its significant change. Baby boomer had working mothers and day care centers blossomed. And Dr. Spock instructed us on how to raise our children. American Society was in transition (progressive). We little knew how much this progressive society would change America. The legislation during the decade of the sixties brought American Society more trauma and chaos than any threat of war. No foreign conquer represented as big a threat to the traditional culture as did the mass immigration of foreign cultures.
History does tell the tale but we don’t teach history, we r-write it.

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