As we move into this second week of Advent, we pause for what has become a civic version of a saint’s day. Sadly, like so many of our national days, this day marks a tragic and traumatic 80th anniversary. In the early morning of Sunday, December 7th, 1941, aircraft from the Combined Fleet of the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service unleashed a withering airborne assault on the United States Navy’s Pacific Fleet moored at Naval Base Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. This attack occurred prior to any formal declaration of war between the Imperial Empire of Japan and the United States of America, thus classifying the action as a war crime following WWII. 2,043 Americans were killed and 1,143 wounded. Our fleet lost 18 ships in the attack, 5 of which were battleships. Of course President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Congress for a war declaration the very next day, which Congress was able to approve within the hour. And off America went to war.
Like so many other singular moments in American history we recall (Memorial Day, JFK’s assassination, 9/11, the Challenger incident, Columbine), the world changed in the blink of an eye for our nation and for us. I note this attack was timed precisely when many Hawaiian churches were tolling their bells for Sunday worship and families were in transit to church. I note further that this assault achieved precisely the opposite result of what was intended; rather than dissuade America from further Pacific naval operations, it galvanized what had been a deeply divided Government and electorate to immediate unified action.
Several of those damaged battleships were repaired and deployed into later naval action, Pearl Harbor’s remaining facilities were able to effectively continue operating as our key strategic base in that theater, a new generation of military leaders were propelled into emergent and adaptive and effective leadership, and a deeply emotive national resolve ultimately prevailed to win that world war. Two personal stories….an African American seaman awoke that day to serve food, tend the mess and deliver laundry aboard the USS West Virginia. Upon the attack, with his captain and ship mortally injured by two bombs and seven torpedo strikes, Miller manned a .50 caliber deck machine gun with no training, firing continuously at the waves of Japanese aircraft until exhausting his ammunition supply. He then physically moved his dying captain off the West Virginia’sbridge before helping numerous other wounded sailors to safety. Tragically Miller died in 1943 when his ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Before his death he was awarded the Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross, the first African-American to be so recognized. The future 4th super aircraft carrier of the Gerald R. Ford Class of advanced carriers is to be christened the USS Doris Miller, CVN-81, the first carrier to be named both for an African-American and named for an enlisted sailor.
My second story about Pearl Harbor occurred the Sunday after 9/11. Downstairs at the Vail Chapel for coffee after our 8:00 AM service, not knowing we were about to host former President and Mrs. Ford at the 10:00 AM worship in the Edwards Elementary School, there was a dazed silence as everyone sipped in reflection. Marge Burdick, our Prayer Chain leader and a spiritual guide to me, whispered in my ear, “This feels just like Pearl Harbor felt like. Now you go to Edwards and tell them we will be okay!” And that’s exactly what I did. Marge remembered Pearl Harbor, gifting me with a precious perspective I needed precisely at that moment. Dear Readers, the day I pen this devotional more Americans died from COVID-19 or viral-related complications than perished either at Pearl Harbor or in 9/11. We face some challenging weeks and months ahead as the contagion flares. We will be different after this pandemic than we were before it. And yet I carry the strongest conviction that Advent’s wisdom can help us navigate this moment, that we will indeed be okay, that light really does shine in darkness and darkness can never, ever overcome it. We walk as hopeful believers by faith and not by sight. Infamy never has the last word.
Gracious God, we give thanks for military men and women, both from the past and present, and for their courageous service and sacrifice to our country and its people to secure the blessings of life, liberty, and justice for all. May our remembrance be a timely reminder that our freedom was purchased at high cost, and should not be taken for granted. Give us resolve to labor in faithful service to you until all share the benefits of freedom, justice, and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
*Photo courtesy History.com