One day, nobody will remember where they were when they heard about Pearl Harbor.
Nobody will be around to share memories of a generation’s defining moment.
Sunday marks the 73rd anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on U.S. military facilities on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, the Japanese strike that catapulted America into World War II.
We remember the date even as fewer veterans are left to recall the chaos and carnage that killed more than 2,400 Americans.
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So few remain, the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association disbanded in 2011 after 53 years. It’s not clear how many survivors are still alive. Some estimates place the number between 1,000 and 2,000, out of the 84,000 men and women who lived to fight another day more than seven decades ago.
Time is erasing their ranks. But other witnesses to history are vanishing.
We’re daily losing the everyday Americans — rich and poor, famous and otherwise, but united in shock — who listened to President Franklin Roosevelt’s voice crackle out of radios, who gathered around newspapers to read the stunning news.
Each year, we’ll lose more.
Already, many communities no longer hold Pearl Harbor Day ceremonies like the one at 12:45 p.m. Sunday at the Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg.
Will anyone beyond a few museums or historical organizations care about the anniversary once there’s nobody to bridge the gulf between the past and the present? Pearl Harbor will never be forgotten — thanks to YouTube and online clips of FDR’s immortal “Day of Infamy” speech — but it’s in danger of being overlooked.
That would be shameful. Pearl Harbor Day is more than a remembrance of the largest attack on U.S. territory by a foreign nation.
It honors one of history’s most pivotal events.
Before Japanese fighters and dive bombers sank or damaged 21 ships and destroyed scores of aircraft, the U.S. wrestled with isolationist sentiment. World War II raged in Europe and the Pacific, but more than a few Americans felt it was none of our business.
Then, with a horrible stroke, it was.
Without America, Britain and the Soviet Union would have faced Nazi Germany’s onslaught alone, a bleak prospect. Japan would have occupied East Asia and the South Pacific, probably for decades.
The war transformed our nation, shaking off the Great Depression’s malaise, then altered the globe. It launched the 20th-century nuclear age and signaled the end of 19th-century imperialism, as Asian and African nations began breaking from colonial rule.
Jets and rockets, developed during the war, led to satellites, Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk and space exploration. Postwar prosperity gave rise to rock ’n’ roll, the civil rights movement and the computers that were the distant ancestors of our laptops and tablets.
The geopolitical upheavals after the war also spawned two costly struggles, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, adding tens of thousands of American lives to the half-million lost during World War II.
“Them bombs — they changed everything,” said Coburn resident Lawrence Wolfe, who at 100 may be the last Centre County Pearl Harbor survivor, this fall to a local reporter. “The whole thing changed after that.”
On Dec. 7, 1941, Wolfe was an Army private first class from Penn Township with the 251st Coastal Artillery regiment at Camp Malakole in the Oahu interior.
He and his friends heard machine gun fire and bolted from their mess hall into the morning sun and a bewildering sight: planes strafing their camp.
“We stood there like dummies,” he said to me in 2007. “We didn’t know what to do then.”
Cursing, they first thought Navy pilots had gone amok.
“One guy said, ‘Those can’t be Navy. They’ve got red suns on them,’ ” Wolfe recalled seven years ago. “By that time, two more came over, and they’re strafing, and that’s when we hunted for holes (for cover).”
A huge explosion roared — probably the battleship USS Arizona detonating in Pearl Harbor a few miles away — as a black smoke column rose in the distance and a shock wave rolled across the soldiers.
By noon, Wolfe had lost a friend from Coburn, Master Sgt. Bill Brandt, gunned down at Wheeler Field by a strafing Zero.
Wolfe woke the next morning to a different world. So did the rest of America, and for that matter Germany and Japan, both embarking on a long road to ruin.
Few days have shaped the course of global history. Dec. 7, 1941 was one. It may lose some of its infamy over time — as a generation that reeled from its blow, answered its call both abroad and home and paid a hideous price slips away — but it should never become irrelevant.
Thousands died. Millions followed. An old world was delivered from evil. A new world began.
The day truly changed everything.
We must always remember Pearl Harbor even without those who could never forget it.