75 Years Ago Today, America Was Attacked at Pearl Harbor

There are many great things a Catholic can do, but none is greater than serving God and neighbor.

(photo: Official U.S. Navy photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives; via Wikimedia Commons)

“There is … a time for war and a time for peace” —Ecclesiastes 3:8.

For many, war is unfamiliar. For the few, war is a reality. We pray it never comes, but we have to be ready in case it does.

Few people remember that Europe had been involved in the Second World War for years before the U.S. entered in December 1941. American citizens were split in opinions about the war, believing it was a European problem, that we had no (or few) enemies, and that our men and women needed to stay home to protect itself.

On December 7, 1941, America was attacked by Japanese forces at Pearl Harbor. All knowledge that formed the dispositions of the American public were deeply challenged, if not entirely changed. It never entered the minds of most that in the course of 28 hours our country would be involved in a war that rivaled the war “to end all wars”.

Pius XII was the pope during the time of World War II and did not write any encyclical that directly assessed or addressed World War II. But before him, Benedict XV wrote Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, which was a landmark appeal for peace. During World War I, the pope wrote:

On every side the dread phantom of war holds sway: there is scarce room for another thought in the minds of men. The combatants are the greatest and wealthiest nations of the earth; what wonder, then, if, well provided with the most awful weapons modern military science has devised, they strive to destroy one another with refinements of horror.

His words show (as much as words can) the picture of the war in the time it happened. To me, he points out the irony that wealthy and secure nations chose to enter into such a deadly and horrific war; everything is fine, and now it’s not.

I feel the same for the men and women who woke up on December 7 to bombs, gunfire, death, torment, anguish, and loss. The loss was overwhelming: 4 battleships lost, 4 battleships damaged, 11 other ships lost, 190 aircraft destroyed, 160 aircraft destroyed, 2400 killed, 1180 wounded. Unbelievable. To give a perspective, this loss accounted for one-third of the Navy’s fleet, and there was not one single combat-ready unit ready to fight on that day. American forces were not planning on a war, nor were they ready in case there was one. Any ability to muster forces was impossible logistically at this point because there was very little in defense production going on at the time, too.

The months that followed reshaped the entire country. Sons and daughters joined the service where possible, and mothers and fathers went to man the factories. There was near-unanimous buy-in on justice being brought to Axis enemies.

We know most of the rest. The war was led by some of the most famous American men and women ever to wear the uniform, and others who contributed in other ways. Men like Bob Hope supporting troop morale with his band of entertainment, to Ernie Pyle, the world famous war reporter who was killed in the final days of the war on Ie Jima (Okinawa). And women like Hedy Lamarr who went from working next to Clark Gable to inventing anti-jamming devices for torpedoes in her spare time, to Lt. Annie Fox who was the first woman to receive the Purple Heart. This generation has often been called the “greatest” and there is good reason. When the time came, they answered the call to serve.

The war produced uncountable stories, friendships, heroes, and even a few saints (Maximilian Kolbe, Edith Stein). Troubling times brought by terrible actions tend to bring forth the most courageous people. Though we are saddened and never completely consoled by the loss of Pearl Harbor and the resulting war, we have so much to gain in learning from the service of those who felt the beckoning.

If ever we feel the temptation to despair by the sudden attacks on our freedoms and way of life, or by the slow, creeping loss of liberty by a culture that sees the Catholic faith as the foe, may we never consider ducking in a corner and letting someone else do the job of correcting lies and exacting justice. There are many great things a Catholic can do, but none is greater than serving others. Living to serve might come with a cost, but the cost of living is to serve.