Awakening the Sleeping Giant: The Birth of the Greatest Generation



Battleship USS West Virginia engulfed in flames and smoke during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

It was a quiet and beautiful Sunday morning at Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor – home of America’s U.S Pacific Fleet. Many of the 60,000 Sailors and other military personnel stationed there were still in their bunks resting after a Saturday night on the town. Some were eating breakfast; a few were on duty, others just straggling in after a long night. What appeared to be another beautiful day in paradise would quickly turn into a nightmare.

At five minutes before 8 a.m., 183 Japanese aircraft raced across the mountains north of Pearl Harbor with a mission to destroy the US Fleet. Bombs were dropped on fuel and ammunition dumps, buildings, and ships. Japanese pilots strafed everything in their path with wing mounted machine guns while others dropped torpedoes.

The attack was a complete surprise. Some Sailors went down with their ship while still asleep in their bunks. Some were trapped only to drown inside as water slowly replaced the air in their ship.

Some had to choose between staying aboard a doomed ship, or take a chance by diving into a harbor aflame with burning fuel and littered with the dead bodies of their fellow sailors. It was truly a living hell.

But in American fashion, these brave men and women pulled together. Ammunition and weapons lockers were broke open in order to fight back. Army pilots dodged bombs and machine gun fire to make it to their planes in attempt to take to the air and drive off the attackers. The injured and dying were rendered aid. Some put their comrades before them and risked their own lives to save a stranger.

Fifty minutes later, a second wave of 170 planes intensified the attack arriving almost simultaneously from three different directions. More than 1,100 Sailors were killed when he USS Arizona’s forward magazine exploded from a direct bomb strike. In all, the assault claimed 2,403 American lives and left more than a thousand others wounded.

Ninety minutes after it all began, the last Japanese plane headed away from Pearl Harbor and back to its carrier, but America’s entry into World War II was solidified.

President Franklin D. Roosevelts address to Congress after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor would reportedly write in his diary, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

Whether or not the Admiral actually uttered those words is debatable, however, there is no doubt that the attack did awaken a sleeping giant. Sixteen million fighting Americans would go on to drive the Japanese and Germans into surrender – fighting in every corner of the globe to deliver a world free from tyranny.

Today, very few Pearl Harbor survivors remain as our last living links with our history and the beginnings of America’s greatest generation. Most of these brave Americans are now in their late 80s and 90s. Today, we salute their valor and sacrifice, and we honor their fighting spirit – a spirit that has motivated millions of Americans to follow their lead and live by their example.

For most of us born several generations later, it’s hard for us to comprehend the devastation, the loss of life and the implications of those events that happened 72 years ago; and thousands of miles away from the places most of us call home.
I believe the horrific attack on Pearl Harbor was to the greatest generation, what 9/11 is to most of us today. The majority of us weren’t there during the terrorists attacks, but we felt the horror, felt the overwhelming emotions and felt the desire to unite and take the fight to enemy.

Those experiences and emotions must have been similar to what the greatest generation must have felt and it spurred them on set a high standard for future American service members as well how the world would view the United States and its military mite.

Those of us who have worn the uniform, and those who will wear it tomorrow, are the legacy of the survivors of Pearl Harbor as well as the millions of brave Veterans who followed in their footsteps. They put country before self and are willing to risk all to save all – the American way of life. We owe all that we are today, to those who came before us.

Author

Gary Hicks

is the Director of VA’s Office of Digital Media Engagement. He is a former managing editor of a daily newspaper and a Veteran of the U.S. Army. Gary’s wife is a senior master sergeant stationed at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.

Comments

  1. david zambrano (Non Vet)    

    While visiting in Mexico, I made friends with a Vet from the Navy, unfortunately he died and no next of kin was there to claim the body from the coroner’s office, (I tried unsuccesfuly) So apparently he hasn’t gotten a decent burial……another thing is, I worry about his benefits from both the government and Social Security being misplaced and mispent much like his bank account, property and such…… Could anybody say who or where to direct my inquiry to solve this problem, I Am a US citizen and I want to do what’s right by his memory and at the same time have those monies stopped and directed back to the system where they can be put to use on other beneficiaries and not be absorbed by the Banks or other oportunists……..Please do what’s right and pay mind to my concern………Thank you kindly on behalf of myself and my family who loved this man.

  2. charles mcmahan    

    my uncle was at pearl harbor on that day- Bill (Wm)Ferleman.

  3. lingxiu    

    American should and Japan diplomatic relations

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