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Pearl Harbor reflects nation’s resolve, generosity

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Peter Hankoff
December 7, 2009

I don’t have a story about where I was or what I was doing Dec. 7, 1941, but I remember Pearl Harbor—even though I wasn’t born yet.


I heard the stories growing up. My dad remembered. He was in a bowling alley in Forest Hills, N.Y., when a buddy ran in and yelled “Johnnie get your gun, the Japs just invaded Pearl Harbor.”


“Japs” was an acceptable word back then, even if no one knew where Pearl Harbor was. But from that day forward, no one would forget.


I’ve had the honor and privilege of meeting, and thanking, many Pearl Harbor survivors. Most were Navy men or Marines. But the Army and Air Corps were there, as well, and lost many men. Civilians were also on casualty lists—many from collateral damage as we threw everything we could at the attacking Japanese (The stuff that missed had to fall somewhere).


Those I’ve met are now in their 80s or better. They all lost friends, witnessed horror and survived. Some shot back. Others were stuck below decks and saw little until the aftermath. But all emerged that day in a new America that would show the world we’re a resilient, relentless and resourceful tribe.


Hindsight gives us the veneer of wisdom. But the attack on Pearl Harbor was the media event of its time, even though a news blackout kept the world from seeing the exact damage for years. It was an unthinkable, impossible act—the kind that ideologues, think tanks and screenwriters are desperate to conjure up.


Pearl Harbor rankled everything America stood for: fair play and invincibility. It was the day the battleship died, the day America went to war, the day when America was forced to turn her forges and her focus to survival and revenge.


On Dec. 6, 1941, we were still pushing for isolationism. Maybe the Roosevelt administration saw what was happening in the world, but a lot of Americans wanted to “steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world” as George Washington farewelled us with back in 1796.


Those around to remember Pearl Harbor first-hand are disappearing at an ever-increasing rate. They’re leaving us to remember the lesson and put it to use.


Many course-changing events fill our history. Sept. 11 has often been equated with Pearl Harbor, and it has many parallels—improper planning, miscommunication, lack of imagination and vision.


I don’t remember Pearl Harbor for the betrayal or the murder or the lack of preparation. I remember it because in spite of those things, we regrouped and rose to the occasion and refitted, rebuilt and resurrected our armed forces. I remember Pearl Harbor because ash and blood were turned into steel and resolve and, ultimately, forgiveness and generosity. I remember Pearl Harbor because it gives me faith that the best in people can overcome the worst in governments.


And I have not forgotten that hope forever renews Americans and everyone else in the world.


Peter Hankoff of Los Angeles is an award-winning director/writer/producer whose work has taken him all over the world and all over cable networks. His programs for “Unsolved History” (Discovery Channel) have taken him inside Hitler’s Bunker and Area 51. His three-part series “Gun Camera” aired on the Military Channel. His “Megadisasters” series (25 episodes) aired for three years on The History Channel. He has created many programs for National Geographic that have taken him everywhere from Auschwitz to Iwo Jima.

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