As the pages of December continue to turn, a significant day jumps off the calendar: December 7th.
Does that date have any meaning to you? It does to me. Please indulge me as I explain why this date means so much to me and why it should mean as much to you as well. First, a little history for those who don’t know what I mean.
December 7th will always be Pearl Harbor Day. It is a cataclysmic day in our history, and should never be forgotten. It seems surreal that 76 years have passed since that horrific day in 1941, when the Japanese empire launched over 400 aircraft from six aircraft carriers, including the Hiryu, Soryu, Akagi, and Kaga, devastating the United States Naval Fleet anchored in Pearl Harbor and damaging the Army Air Forces at Wheeler and Hickam Fields. Over 2000 service men and women were murdered that day, along with hundreds of innocent civilians on the island of Oahu as Japanese planes bombed and strafed them mercilessly. American battleships lay destroyed in the harbor, with four of them sunk--including the Arizona and Oklahoma. Almost 200 planes were wiped out. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war the next day as he stated “Yesterday, December 7th, 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….and then added “No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God.”
The world was now at war. And just over six months later, the four Japanese carriers mentioned before lay at the bottom of the Pacific after the battle of Midway. Righteous victory indeed, but at such a terrible cost.
I have always remembered December 7th as a seminal date. My personal journey and experience at—and with—Pearl Harbor began in the winter of 1994. I visited Oahu, and went to the Arizona Memorial to tour the final resting place of over 1000 sailors still entombed in its sunken hull. Before the boat shuttle to the actual site, I sat down to watch a movie on the event at the welcome center. As the lights went down, some other people came in and sat down in my row in the dark. After watching the emotional documentary, the lights went on and I looked to my right where an elderly Japanese man was sitting next to me. Tears ran down his cheeks, and in his best English he apologized to me for what happened that day. We embraced, and I found out that he was a sailor in the fleet who attacked Pearl Harbor. It was very moving.
Before I left, I bought a poster from the souvenir shop showing the blazing battleship sinking on Dec. 7, 1941 with the Arizona Memorial superimposed over it. A Pearl Harbor survivor was on site answering questions, and I asked him to sign my poster, which he humbly did. A few days later, I stayed at a Bed & Breakfast in Maui. The B & B was owned by an American man and a woman from England. One morning at breakfast I showed them my poster from the Memorial, and the lady left the lanai. She returned with her dad who was visiting from England. We talked, and I found that he had fought with the RAF in the Battle of Britain. He was one of those that Winston Churchill had lauded with “Never has so much been owed to so few by so many.” I asked him to sign the poster, and he did with the following inscription: “This was our finest hour.” It gives me chills to just think of that moment.
Now fast forward to December 2007. I was looking to do a story on Pearl Harbor for the paper I was running at the time, and asked the local veterans affairs officer if there were any Pearl Harbor veterans in the area. There was, and he was the president of the Michigan Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. His name was John Wilberding, and he was one of the most incredible men I have ever met.
I contacted him, and we agreed to meet in the cafeteria of a small hospital in Alma, MI the following day while his wife was undergoing kidney dialysis. When we sat down, we were the only two people in the room, and he began his incredible story.
On December 6th, Wilberding was stationed at Wheeler Field, home of the Army Air Force. On that Saturday night, he went to Waikiki to imbibe and check out the local girls. After a night of revelry, he returned to his barracks much worse for wear. In the early morning hours of December 7th, he woke up at 6:30 a.m. with a hangover and had to decide if he was going to go mass at 7 a.m. He chose God, and God saved him.
He went to mass, but at 7:55 a.m., he heard the air raid sirens and the sounds of bombs falling all around him. He rushed out of the church and saw a Japanese bomb score a direct hit on the building he was sleeping in. His bunkmates were killed. If he had not gone to church, he would have died too. On that day, the young John Wilderbing lost his innocence and so did the rest of America.
A few months after Pearl Harbor, John transferred from the Air Forces and was accepted into the Army tank school. He became a tank commander, and served with General George Patton’s 3rd Army in Europe. His 4th Armored Division led the relief of Bastogne that saved the 101st Airborne Division at the Battle of the Bulge. By war’s end, PFC John Wilberding had risen to become a Lt. Colonel in the United States Army. After the war, he became a preacher.
As he got done telling his story to me that day, we looked around and discovered that we were surrounded by the doctors and nurses who worked at the hospital. Many had tears in their eyes (as I did) and they all clapped for him and shook his hand. It was a compelling moment.
This is not the end of the story, however. Months later, John asked me to attend the annual Pearl Harbor Survivors Association meeting in Grand Rapids, MI. I agreed, and vowed to take my poster (which was now framed) to the banquet and see if I could have any of the survivors sign it. There were only seven men left.
That night at dinner, a lady was supposed to give a speech on GRAVES REGISTRATION! Their graves—and what their tombstones would say. To say the least, these men were stoic in their resolve. Well, the lady did not show up to give her speech. So Lt. Colonel Wilberding in his infinite wisdom announced from the rostrum that “Let’s get Terry up here to give a speech. I’ve heard him talk and he’s good.” I spit my dessert out, choked, and was shocked at the impromptu invitation and call to action.
But I got up, gathered my thoughts and spoke from the heart. What ensued is a moment in time I will never forget Here’s what I said after I looked over the audience of seven survivors and their families, along with widows and friends of those who had already died.
“Thank you for inviting me to be here tonight,” I began. “I am truly humbled to stand before you and talk to a room full of American heroes.”
As I made the comment about them being heroes, all of them to a man shook their heads in denial. Then my emotions took over.
“Men, I look at you and see you shaking your heads in disbelief. You are wrong for feeling that way. You are heroes.
“Over the course of the past six months, I have talked to and interviewed men who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and to a man they and you do not consider yourself heroes. You feel like you did your duty, but the real heroes are the men buried across the Pacific, the Atlantic and in Southeast Asia.
“Well those men were heroes, but so are you. You have seen men die. You saw men wounded, maimed and torn asunder, yet you carried on and did your duty. You stood your post despite all of the hell and carnage that was going on around you. And now you carry those memories with you. At night the horrors of that time still enter your dreams and haunt you.
“Well by any definition I have ever understood you are heroes. You did stand your post. You did your duty. You came home and led good lives and taught your children well.
“So I say to you ‘Remember Pearl Harbor?’ Hell yes I will remember Pearl Harbor. And I will remember all of you and all who weren’t here for the rest of my life. And my children will too and they will teach their children. I will never forget and you men will never be forgotten. Ever.
“From the bottom of my heart, Thank you and may you have happy and satisfying lives for the rest of your days.”
The room erupted, everyone was crying, and then a widow yelled from the back: ‘’These men and I have waited over 50 years for someone to say that. Thank you.”
And then something incredible happened. After the speech was over, every one of the Seven Survivors came up to me and asked if they could sign my poster. I still shed a tear every time I think of that day and those men. Those heroes.
Remember Pearl Harbor and those men? Absolutely.
Please remember all of them on Thursday.
And God Bless Texas. And God Bless the USA.