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.