13. Let’s Remember Pearl Harbor… Too soon to forget ?

December 10, 2015

The chorus from the rousing World War II song by Don Reid and Sammy Kaye goes, “Let’s remember Pearl Harbor”, the Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941. Which I do, remembering the radio broadcasts as clearly as I remember the images of planes flying into the twin towers.

Three days ago the Arizona Republic carried a full-page story on page one about what the writer called the “surprise attack” on our fleet in the harbor in Hawaii. It is the sunken wreck of the battleship USS Arizona which lies at the bottom of the harbor, a memorial that still entombs 1,102 United States sailors and Marines killed in the attack.

1941 was a simpler time.  On that Sunday morning we had been betrayed by an act of perfidy that flouted the agreement among nations that war must be declared before any one would launch an attack upon any other.  Therefore, this was not a mere “surprise” attack, as modern historical revisionists like to term it.  It wasn’t like a ‘surprise’ birthday party or being caught napping by a declared enemy, where our side might share some of the blame for the result.  It was, to us at the time, more like the deep betrayal of being stabbed in our beds by a neighbor.  Therefore we called it a “sneak attack” fully intending to remember the event as an international and a personal betrayal. For modern writers to re-name it a “surprise” dishonors the true history of the event as recalled by us who were alive at the time. President Roosevelt called it, “A day that will live in infamy”. A prediction that, in the service of mere political correctness, is being subtly eroded after only 74 years.

Some historical revisionists have gone so far as to declare that it was our own fault that the declaration of war did not reach us until after the attack. However, from a close reading of the sequence of events, and given the slow speed of diplomatic short-wave communications at the time, it is pretty clear that the weekend delay in notification was engineered by Tokyo to catch Hawaii undefended and mainland America sound asleep.

Today the Japanese are our allies. I often chat with Japanese ham radio operators on the air.  But on December 7, 1941, six weeks after my 7th birthday, “the Japs” became, for several years to come, our despised and mortal enemies.

Personally, I do remember Pearl Harbor, and my eight uncles who helped get us through that war, two of whom were high school students when it started, and all of whom survived the war, fighting in Europe and in the Pacific.

Before becoming overly concerned about the possibility of offending our friends, the Japanese, it might be well to consider the following event, which took place in the late fall of 2014.   A Delta Airlines 757 suffered an engine failure between Osaka and Guam and diverted to an airstrip on Iwo Jima where they made an emergency landing.  Iwo Jima is now a Japanese military shrine and only very small delegations of Americans, officials and war veterans, are ever allowed to set foot on the island, and only on four separate days of the year, one of which is the date of the invasion where we lost 8,000 Marines on the first day.

Because Iwo Jima is listed as an emergency landing field by international aviation treaties, the Japanese had to permit the Delta jet to land there. However, because it was an American plane, none of the crew or the mostly Japanese tourist passengers was allowed to set foot on the island shrine.  They sweltered in the disabled airliner for seven hours, until a rescue plane from Hawaii landed and they were herded across a few feet of tarmac to that aircraft, which was instructed to take off immediately.

Two Japanese mechanics from Delta remained with the downed jet, but were forbidden to leave the plane.

Meanwhile, another Delta captain, co-pilot and several mechanics were flown to Osaka to wait for permission from the Japanese government to go to the island with a spare engine, change the engine, and fly the empty plane out of there.  They waited in Osaka for several days for permission to be given… then several more days before a decision was reached by Japanese authorities.

Finally authorization was received for a 747 to land on Iwo Jima with a recovery engine, mechanics and flight crew.  The minute the new engine and personnel were unloaded, the 747 was required to leave the island.  Fresh food supplies sent along for the recovery crew were not allowed to be taken off the jumbo jet.  So for several more days on the island the new crew ate emergency rations, “MREs”, from the disabled plane, slept on board, and used its overflowing and stinking toilet facilities while changing the engine. For the duration of the effort they were confined to within a few feet of the plane itself, and the plane sat far out on the airfield, quite a distance from its tower, buildings and facilities.  The work would have gone more quickly if the Japanese had allowed them to borrow the use of a fork-lift to shift the spare engine into position under the plane, which they did not.  Instead they complained about how long the work was taking.

When the failed and destroyed engine had been changed, the crew undertook necessary hours of complex planning calculations and paperwork required to plan the flight back to Japan.  Again, the Japanese complained at how long it was taking.  They were told it would go much faster if the navigator/communicator could have access to the airfield’s internet, but, incredibly, the Japanese commander claimed not to have any internet connection at their island military base.  Finally, when it was calculated that the remaining fuel would barely get the plane back to Osaka, the Japanese refused a request to provide a small amount of additional jet fuel, though a supply was clearly visible sitting in tanker trucks on the field.  The plane, having sat for so long in the autumn heat and humidity that had made the repair process so miserable, was showing visible signs of corrosion inside the aluminum hull, but was judged airworthy by the recovery mechanics.

Taking off with scant fuel, the crew circled Mount Suribachi, made a last pass over the length of Iwo Jima, gazing down at the east and west invasion beaches where a landing craft could be seen still rusting in shallow water, and headed northwest towards Osaka.  They landed safely in Japan with minimal fuel remaining in the tanks.

None of the crew ever knew why our purported allies and friends were so reluctant to offer even the slightest assistance, but it seemed clear that someone in the chain of decision in Japan and on the island was remembering World War II.

As the once-disabled plane was taxiing out to leave Iwo Jima, around the corner of a hanger and out of sight of the base commandant and officialdom, a dozen Japanese mechanics stood just inside the hanger door waving and holding up Japanese and American flags, presumably flags used during the four official days annually when, on Iwo Jima, the war dead of both nations are honored. Mutual respect within the aviation family had finally triumphed over the bitter pettifogging of officialdom.