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Now, more than ever, we must not forget

Published in Blog on December 07, 2023 by Jakob Fay

Many of the heroes stationed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, 82 years ago today, were no more than mere boys at the time. Navy ship deck logs meticulously record the utter averageness with which their morning began: their formidable battleships, minutes away from an unimaginable attack, received ice cream. A log entry for the USS Cummings, for example, records that the ship received “15 gallons of milk, 7 gallons of ice cream,” and “300 pounds of ice.” But the very next entry is jarring:

“Air Raid. Japanese planes commenced torpedo attack on battleships in Pearl Harbor.”

Their morning began as any Sunday on Oahu might; it ended “a date which will live in infamy,” a nightmare forever seared into the nation’s memory. 

Imperial Japan’s “unprovoked and dastardly” raid killed 2,403 Americans, wounded 1,000 more, and decimated our Pacific Fleet, leaving a score of ships and hundreds of aircraft damaged or destroyed. But more than that it triggered America’s entry into World War II — as Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto reportedly confessed (words that first appeared in the 1970 film, “Tora! Tora! Tora!”), “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

Such resolve indeed swept the nation, which vowed never to forget the horrors of that ghastly day nor to let the fallen thousands die in vain. Millions of Americans joined the war effort within a year — the president’s call to patriotism and sacrifice ringing in their ears — and “Remember Dec. 7th” became a popular wartime recruitment slogan. The true meaning of that day would never be lost on those who lived through it.

Yet, even now, it seems the memory is slipping. With every passing anniversary, the number of remaining survivors dwindles, and with them, we lose irreplaceable pieces of the story.

Just this year, Joseph Eskenazi, once the oldest living survivor, died shortly after celebrating his 105th birthday. Ken Potts, one of the last two USS Arizona survivors, also passed away this year, leaving only his friend, Lou Center, 101. AP News reported a mere six survivors were expected to participate in this year’s commemoration ceremony; as recently as 2019, “dozens” were in attendance.

In an age glutted with fame-seeking and self-congratulation, these men were often surprisingly reticent about their wartime service (in fact, whenever Eskenazi was hailed as a hero, he emphasized that he was, from his perspective, only a “survivor”). However, as the sights, sounds, images, and emotions of that infamous day increasingly fade from the nation’s memory, they seem to express a newfound openness to reliving the past, if only to preserve it for posterity.

“He loves to continue to do short interviews with the younger generation to keep the history, especially World War II, ongoing because he is the last generation, and it’s dwindling quickly,” Lou Center’s daughter explained.

Another survivor, Ike Schab, 103, also once spoke sparingly about the bombing but has since become more communicative. When asked why, he replied, “Oh, because I think I owe it to the guys who were there who aren’t there anymore. Don't forget it. Don’t forget it. Just keep it alive.”

As the Greatest Generation all but disappears, the task of keeping the memory of Pearl Harbor alive now falls to us. Now, more than ever, we cannot afford to forget the lessons learned that day, the legacy of those who survived, or the sacrifice of those who did not. Heroes like Joseph Eskenazi, Ken Potts, Lou Center, Ike Schab, and hundreds of others have preserved for us a beautiful tapestry of American fortitude, courage, and patriotism — virtues we must reclaim and embody if we ever hope to pass that tapestry on to the next generation.

Should the American experiment in liberty last for a thousand years, may men still look back and remember that those heroes — those everyday heroes and boys who received ice cream in the early hours of an island December, unaware of the battle to come — were among the finest we ever produced.

May “Remember Dec. 7th” ring true for the ages.

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