On Wednesday in classrooms across America, students will learn — or at least we hope they do — about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Seventy-five years have passed, but the images of billowing black smoke rising from the water are forever stamped on our national memory. The two-hour air assault killed 2,400 servicemen, destroyed the entire battle line of the Pacific Fleet, including 256 aircraft, and changed the course of history.
We commemorate this special year because though they are few, there are still veterans who remember it.
We honor it as a pivotal point in history when a reluctant nation was pushed into war. When we ponder this date, we don’t just think of the bloodshed; we also remember the bravery.
Pearl Harbor was the beginning of an era that defined an exceptional generation. As a country we gave our collective attention to defeating despotic regimes that threatened world order.
On this date, the demographics and influence of the Pacific Northwest shifted mightily. Because of proximity to Asia, troops and supplies had to come from our region, and people here were poised to mobilize. To this day, Joint Base Lewis-McChord remains the leading power projection point for the Pacific Rim.
The Grand Coulee and Bonneville Dams had recently been completed, and the surplus of hydroelectricity fed the abundance of aluminum production needed for wartime supplies.
The Boeing Company began producing B-17 and B-29 bombers. In 1942, Boeing was producing 60 planes per month; by 1944 the company averaged 350. Many assembly line workers were women whose husbands were fighting in World War II.
Recruitment for these jobs brought diversity that changed the region’s fabric for the better. African Americans arrived to work in shipyards and airplane factories; Latinos came to work on ranches and farms.
Shipbuilding, repair and maintenance brought almost 80,000 workers to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton. The war also brought 51,000 laborers to Hanford to build nuclear reactors and extract plutonium for atomic weapons. If not for that effort, the bombs dropped on Japan, ending the war in 1945, would not have happened.
But we can’t truly commemorate that day 75 years ago and the changes it brought without also looking at its darker truth. Pearl Harbor marks the turning point to one of our nation’s most egregious eras of civil rights abuse.
In February 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order that more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans be rounded up and sent to internment camps in California and Idaho. Before they were dispersed, they sat in holding centers like Camp Harmony in Puyallup. Entire families lived in dirt-floor units smaller than most horse stalls.
During that time, some citizens took bold stands and defended their Japanese-American neighbors, including Tacoma’s wartime mayor Harry Cain. He wrote in his diary, ‘If I don’t fight to protect the other fellow’s freedom, my own freedom hangs by a very thin thread.” But his voice was no match against an executive order.
We remember this national shame because, perhaps now more than ever, its lessons have something to teach. It certainly showed how quickly “the other” can be tagged and incorrectly identified as someone to be feared.
Pearl Harbor will live in infamy not just because of the carnage, but because it showed what a nation can do when it gathers its collective will against tyranny. It also provides a valuable context for understanding the injustices humans are capable of in the name of fear and self-protection.
As we commemorate the 75th anniversary and honor those who bravely served, let us recommit to our promise of never again.