Does Pearl Harbor still “live in infamy”?

You’re not entitled to your opinion

infamy-fdr-speakingI asked a not-so-random teenager if she happened to know what December 7, 1941, signified. No, but she did know the magnitude of the bombing of Pearl Harbor as the entry of the United States into World War II.

I’m constantly reminded why some folks keep chanting, “Never forget.” And as the generations pass, people WILL forget. I mean, these may be events that are marked in the history books, but it just won’t have the same resonance to another generation. 1776 and 1861 and 1941 all signify ancient history.

Born a little over a decade after Pearl Harbor, I can still hear in my mind’s ear not only the words of FDR’s address to Congress on December 8 but his speaking pattern. But I was learning this a mere quarter-century after the consequential event, as opposed to 75 or 80 years later. December 7, 1941, for many, I surmise, will not always be “a date which will live in infamy.”

What Holocaust?

It is inevitable that elements of history fall through the cracks. But it troubles me that history can be so distorted. I’m thinking of the Holocaust both-sides-ing debacle, in Texas, unsurprisingly.

One can analyze the Why. For instance, the Germans could not accept they had been defeated in World War I. They needed convenient scapegoats. The Holocaust was partly a result of that.

Surely, one may analyze what other countries, such as the United States, could have done to avert some of the slaughter. But what IS the “other side” that suggests that the events did not take place at all?

Always learning

This is not to say that ‘history” is inviolate. In my lifetime, I’ve learned a great deal, from the NASA women immortalized in the movie Hidden Figures to Tulsa 1921. These were not stories that were in my history books growing up. Invariably we will recontextualize what we learn.

But denial of facts troubles me greatly. I came across this article from 2012. “No, you’re not entitled to your opinion,” a philosophy professor wrote. “No one can stop you saying that vaccines cause autism, no matter how many times that claim has been disproven. But if ‘entitled to an opinion’ means ‘entitled to have your views treated as serious candidates for the truth’ then it’s pretty clearly false. And this… is a distinction that tends to get blurred.”

J is for Japan, the US and World War II

The visit by Abe to Pearl Harbor comes after many years of debate in the U.S., Japan and elsewhere about how the two nations should come to terms with the legacy of World War II

I was thrilled by a pair of events addressing the historic Japan-United States enmity of the 1940s.

In May 2016, then-President Barack Obama visited Hiroshima, the first American commander-in-chief to do so since the US dropped an atomic bomb on the city over 70 years earlier.

While criticized by those on the left and the right, I thought it was an important gesture. “As he promised, the president did not apologize for the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, which killed an estimated 215,000 people. He laid a wreath at Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima and embraced a 91-year-old survivor of the nuclear attack.”

During his 20-minute remarks, “Obama said, ‘Why do we come to this place, to Hiroshima? We come to ponder the terrible forces unleashed in the not so distant past. We come to mourn the dead … their souls speak to us and ask us to look inward. To take stock of who we are and what we might become.’

“In the Hiroshima museum’s guest book before his speech, the President wrote that he hoped the world will ‘find the courage, together, to spread peace, and pursue a world without nuclear weapons.’‎” Most of the elderly survivors, I imagine, did not foresee an American President in their midst, in that place.

Then, in December 2016, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe offered his condolences for his country’s attack on Pearl Harbor. “‘We must never repeat the horrors of war again, this is the solemn vow the people of Japan have taken,” he said. The Prime Minister was accompanied by President Obama, making the visit the first by the leaders of both countries.

“Mr. Abe paid tribute to the [2,400] men who lost their lives in 1941 at the naval base, many of whom remain entombed in the wreckage of the USS Arizona, sunk by the Japanese that day, and vowed reconciliation and peace.

How did this come about?

“Just as was the case when Obama visited Hiroshima earlier in the year—as the first sitting U.S. President to go to the site of the atomic bombing—the visit by Abe comes after many years of debate in the U.S., Japan and elsewhere about how the two nations should come to terms with the legacy of World War II.”

Mr. Abe never actually apologized, but as one elderly Pearl Harbor survivor noted, the Prime Minister’s presence was even more important.

Joe Hittorff, Jr. (Dec 2, 1916- Dec 7, 1941)

Joe Hittorff was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, the Victory Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the American Defense Medal.

JosephPHittorffJr5From the obituary, which I purloined:

“Ensign Joseph Parker Hittorff, Jr. was born in Kingston, NJ. He died 25 years later on the Oklahoma after it was bombed in Pearl Harbor… Joe (or Bud, as his older sister Marion called him) was the son of Joseph Peter Hittorff [d. in 1961 at age 84] and Ethel (Van Wagenen) Hittorff [d. 1933 when Joe was 17]…

“In June of 1936, he entered the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis and graduated in 1940. His initial assignment was serving on board the battleship USS Oklahoma, a 583 foot battleship attached to the Pacific Fleet in Hawaii…

“Joe sent frequent letters home. In one from November 2, 1941, he expressed concern that there were war clouds on the horizon, and he was ‘expecting the worst — and hoping for the best’.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. The Oklahoma sank, and Joe was among the casualties along with 395 enlisted men and 19 other officers.

“Seven days [after Pearl Harbor], a telegram was sent to his parents and sister [informing them he] was lost in action. Joe’s Naval Academy ring was recovered from the wreckage at a later time. Also returned to the family was a ceremonial sword from Annapolis. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, the Victory Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and the American Defense Medal.

“On March 7, 2016, seventy-four years and three months later, Joe’s remaining family members were notified that his remains had been identified after being disinterred from the Punch Bowl Cemetery in Hawaii. Sadly, his oldest living relative, Marie Camp of South Kent, CT passed away early this April. Marie, her sister Amy Nissen of Nassau, NY [mother of my late friend Norm Nissen], and cousin Norma Medlicott of Zephyrhills, FL were all first cousins of Joe and Marion.
A funeral [took place] June 18 [2016] at the Kent Congregational Church, Kent CT with burial immediately after in the Kent Congregational Cemetery.

A 2008 article from the Philadelphia Inquirer continues the narrative:

“You can imagine the shock to Hittorff’s sister, Marion _ now 98 [since deceased] and living in a Collingswood, N.J. nursing home – when she learned recently that bits of her brother’s body might have been recovered decades ago, and might lie in a grave marked “unknown” at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.

“The U.S. military just this year identified three other Oklahoma casualties buried as unknowns in the cemetery. A veterans group wants additional graves – including one that may hold Hittorff’s remains – to be opened…

“Marion Hittorff was dazzled by the men in ‘shining white.’ Two Navy chiefs, in their starched dress uniforms, had come to her room to take DNA swabs from her mouth.”

Marie Camp’s daughter Dianne Lang picks up the story in June 2016, just before Joe’s burial; you should read her piece in full:

“Back in the present, progress is slow. A staggering number of military remains have not yet been matched to individuals. Over 73,000 veterans from WWII alone have never been identified. The backlog for the DNA identification facilities is incredible…

“One of the graves cited by the Oklahoma researcher has recently been exhumed as some DNA samples from relatives have been obtained. A startling result! Instead of the remains of 5 individuals in the one casket, there are at least 46 individuals represented. How could this be?…

“Eighteen months after the attack, the Oklahoma was finally righted. At this point, the remains were only bones. It was expected that there would be a group burial. All of the recovered skulls were put in one casket, all of the femurs in another, and so on, meaning all of the remains were mixed. After the request for a group burial was rejected, the people in charge were directed to put the parts representing a complete skeleton together. Their only recourse was to choose the parts that they felt might have belonged together. Hence the confusion…

“We are nearing closure for Joe. I wonder later if my joyful voice was inappropriate. Sadness comes at other times as I look at this picture of a relative I never knew who gave his life for all of us. He was young, handsome, and by all accounts, a nice gentleman of good character. I wish he had had the opportunity to experience a full life with all that it might have brought. I wonder if I would have ever met him.”


I believe there is wisdom to be gained from the past, but specifically, what is it we are supposed to learn?

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

I wasn’t born yet, but I do remember the distinctive voice of FDR in his radio address, and I remember many of the words he spoke.

I was thinking about this around 9/11 this year. Of course, most Americans don’t remember Pearl Harbor, 70 years ago, directly anymore, as the population ages. But if we did, what lessons are we to glean now?

“Never forget” is the mantra after many significant disasters. But Japan, and for that matter, Germany, are our allies now; maybe that’s the new message.

Incidentally, of the 16,112,566 Americans who served in the armed forces during WWII, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated in November 2011 that only 1,711,000 nationwide are still living, and a greater number die each year.

And, as the population ages, we will forget 9/11 too, maybe not any time soon, but eventually, in a few generations. I believe there is wisdom to be gained from the past, but specifically, what is it we are supposed to learn? I think about this regularly, yet have no tidy answers.

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