As time marches on, it feels like the decisive moments in American history are increasingly becoming yellowed, unread pages in the volumes of old books sitting on library shelves and lost among the digital impulses in the vast black hole of the ether world.
We can only imagine what would come out of the mouths of today’s college students, young adults and even 40-somethings if you asked them: What happened on Dec. 7, 1941?
Fewer and fewer Americans can actually recall were they were on that day the way most of can recall where we were on Sept. 11, 2001. Indeed, on Longboat Key there are around 660 residents who were old enough to remember that December day first hand.
Dec. 7, 1941: The Japanese unleashed a harrowing, deadly surprise attack on the Pearl Harbor Naval Base and Hickam Field Army airfield and bomber base near Honolulu, Hawaii.
It was the 9/11 of its time. Shocking beyond imagination. We know 574 more people died in the 9/11 attacks than in Pearl Harbor, but the force with which the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field was beyond shocking.
The Middle East terrorists used three commercial jets on 9/11. The Japanese sent 353 aircraft, two heavy naval cruisers, 35 submarines, nine oil tankers, two battleships and 11 destroyers — all with the intent of completely wiping out the U.S. Pacific naval fleet in an overwhelming attack that lasted about 90 minutes.
As miracles go, the United States’ three Pacific fleet aircraft carriers were out to sea on maneuvers and escaped the attacks, saving the U.S. from total defeat.
But for those who were at Pearl Harbor and Hickam Field, it was 90 minutes of hell.
Longboat Key resident Woody Wolverton, now 89, was there.
We remember another Longboater, now deceased, who was there: the late Gen. Jim Edmundson, after whom Longboat Key’s post office is named.
Wolverton was 7. He lived with his father, an Army captain, mother and 3-year-old brother.
At the time of the attack, Wolverton’s father was 20 miles away at the Army’s Schofield Barracks. Wolverton, his mother and brother were getting ready on that Sunday morning to go on a picnic with other moms and kids living on base near Hickam Field.
When the Japanese planes started strafing Hickam Field and the nearby homes, the Wolvertons took cover underneath a mattress.
Wolverton remembers the next door neighbor’s home being blown to bits and aircraft bullets pelting the Wolvertons’ home.
“I remember seeing the face of one of those guys,” he said of a Japanese fighter strafing his neighborhood. “I wanted to go out and shoot that SOB.”
Wolverton remembers his courageous mother: “My mom never panicked.”
While the Wolvertons hid for cover and survived the devastating ordeal, then bomber pilot 1st Lt. James V. Edmundson was running to rescue crew members from a B-17 that had landed in the middle of the Hickam Field runway, split in two and caught fire.
A Japanese bomb fragment hit Edmundson in the head. In a letter to his wife, Lee, after the attack, he wrote: “I felt a big bang and was knocked out. When I came to … I felt my head because I couldn’t see out of one eye. There was blood running down, and I felt with my frozen hand. It felt like I had a hole in my head big enough to put my fist into.
“‘Well,’ I thought, ‘that’s all she wrote. That’s the end of the road. I’ll just sit here and wait to die.’
“I sat there and waited to die, but nothing seemed to happen. Then, I reached up with the other hand and found out that all I had was a little nick in my head … I got up and went back to work.”
(Gen. Edmundson went on to fly 181 combat missions through World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars and later served as mayor of Longboat Key.)
Those of us who have never experienced the front lines of war can easily forget, dismiss or think nothing of the monumental dates that changed the course of our nation’s history — Bunker Hill, 1775; Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863 (7,863 soldiers killed combined; 48,165 wounded); D-Day, June 6, 1944 (4,414 Allied deaths, 2501 Americans); Sept. 11, 2001.
Dec. 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor, is one of those dates, as we say about 9/11, we should “never forget.” Tragic as it was, it was the start of changing the course of the world for the better.