(Providence, Rhode Island) – Today is the 73rd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the United State into World War II. It remains one of the most profound days in U.S. history, with implications and lessons to this very day. Let’s “brunch” on that this week:
“By the Numbers” – The unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor killed 2,403 Americans, most of them military members. The single-event death toll was not surpassed on American soil until the September 11th attacks in 2001. Two U.S. battleships and 188 aircraft were completely destroyed. Seventeen other ships were severely damaged, and nearly 1,200 people were injured. By comparison, only 64 Japanese were killed; they lost only 29 aircraft; and four small submarines were destroyed. It was a very, very one-sided fight, but the tide would later turn dramatically mostly due to an undying American spirit.
“The Unsung Heroes” – With all the racial tension and hostility in the United States these days, it’s important to mention one of the first heroes of World War II. On December 7, 1941, Messman Third Class Doris “Dorie” Miller was cleaning up after serving breakfast on a ship in Pearl Harbor. Being kitchen help was about as high as an African-American service member might hope for in those days. As the attack on Pearl Harbor began, officers aboard the USS West Virginia, ordered Miller to grab a 50-caliber anti-aircraft gun, and he started firing at Japanese planes. He also carried his mortally wounded captain to safety, and then helped save the lives of numerous wounded sailors on deck. He was the first black sailor awarded the Navy Cross in World War II (the military’s third highest honor), pinned on him by legendary Admiral Chester Nimitz (photo above). Sadly, Miller would die in combat two years later.
“Rosie the Riveter” – The sudden onset of World War II sent many of the nation’s adult men to the fronts in Europe and the South Pacific. That meant that people were needed to fill factory jobs, shipyard openings, and assembly lines that produced weapons and equipment for the war effort. The task fell on American women. Female employment in the workforce nearly doubled – from 12 to 20 million – according to the Encyclopedia of American Economic History. In fact, the need was so severe that black women were recruited to work side by side with white women in many of the first integrated work places. The phrase “We can do it!” became a rallying cry in the female workforce.
“WPA” – As I mentioned a few weeks ago in my column about Presidential Executive Orders, the WPA (Works Progress Administration) became a prominent U.S. government employer from the Great Depression deep into World War II. From 1935 to 1943, it created eight million public works jobs, but they weren’t meaningless “make-work” jobs. The WPA built over 40,000 new buildings, many of them schools, libraries and recreation centers. It paved thousands of miles of roads and highways, installed water mains, and built firehouses. It constructed the backbone of American infrastructure, much of which is still in use today. It was finally disbanded in 1943 because so many workers were needed instead for war-related jobs.
“The Greatest Generation” – It was, in fact, the generation that saved this country, not only from the Great Depression but from World War II. My dad was among them. On December 7, 1941, he was a senior at Campion Jesuit High School in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. He would never formally finish high school, nor would he ever earn an undergraduate college degree. Because his dad was a doctor and my dad was planning to become one, too, he was sent directly to Marquette University for one year of undergraduate study and then year-round medical school. By age 22, he was a doctor and off to the Navy. It was that kind of dedication and sacrifice by tens of millions of Americans that won the war. Many families have similar stories.
“Why All of This Matters?” – The resolve to win World War II was not limited to a single sector of the population. Victory required every corner of a diverse and divergent nation to pitch together and make it happen. It took men and women – white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, etc. - to put aside their differences and work toward the collective good. The phrase “thinking outside the box” is a cliché these days, but that’s exactly what you had back in the 1940s, when someone suggested that most of the warships be built by women stateside. And that’s what you had when Japanese-Americans in internment camps were asked to help break Japanese enemy codes, which they did gladly for the very nation that now incarcerated them. This is the kind of collective “from-the- ground-up” leadership we need to solve many of today’s problems in the United States. We can - and should - do it to honor those who walked before us!
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© 2014, Mark Curtis Media, LLC.
Photo courtesy: U.S. Navy Archives