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Deputy commander learns from Pearl Harbor

  • Published
  • By U.S. Navy Capt. Bill Bulis
  • Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst deputy commander
Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it "a date which will live in infamy." The Japanese Navy's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor shook America to its foundation. The attack killed 2,400 Americans, injured more than 1,280, damaged all eight of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet battleships (four sank) and resulted in the United States formally declaring war on Japan 24 hours later. Although the attack was a tremendous tactical victory, it proved to be a strategic miscalculation that ultimately led to the Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri in 1945.

For me, commemorating the attack means remembering and reviewing the lessons I take away from that fateful day 71 years ago.

Never underestimate the bravery and perseverance of U.S. Soldiers, Marines, Sailors, Airmen and Coast Guardsmen. Although caught off guard that early Sunday morning and facing continued attack, American servicemen quickly organized and responded to their battle stations. One of the most notable was Mess Attendant 3rd Class Doris "Dorie" Miller, a young African American Sailor from Waco, Texas. He was collecting laundry aboard the USS West Virginia when the attack started. Finding his assigned battle station destroyed when he reached it, he immediately headed to the main deck to do whatever he could to help save his ship and shipmates. He was carrying wounded Sailors to safety when an officer ordered him to the bridge to assist the ship's wounded captain. When there was nothing more he could do for the captain, he manned a .50-caliber anti-aircraft machine gun, a weapon he had never been trained on and began targeting Japanese aircraft. Lack of training did not stop him. For his extraordinary courage that day, Miller earned the Navy Cross, which was personally presented to him by Admiral Nimitz.

American innovation and resourcefulness are as crucial to our national defense today as they were in 1941. Naval warfare was changed forever on Dec. 7, 1941. The Japanese attack ended the tenure of the battleship as the centerpiece of naval power and ushered in the age of the aircraft carrier - an era that, 71 years later, has no end in sight. The Japanese attack caught all eight of the US Pacific Fleet's battleships in port. With four of the eight battleships sunk and the others badly damaged, American naval strategy immediately shifted to the Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers, none of which were in port during the attack.

The Battle of Midway was fought six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, between opposing carrier battle groups. It was the first naval battle conducted where ships of the opposing fleets never came within visual range of each other. Although outnumbered by a ratio of 2 to1, the U.S. fleet had the advantage of American code-breakers intercepting Japanese battle orders and allowing U.S. forces to decisively defeat Japanese forces. Today, our aircraft carriers continue to allow us to project American power persistently around the globe.

The Japanese Navy's attack on Pearl Harbor ended the commonly held American belief that the Pacific and Atlantic oceans would act as "moats" protecting our country from attack. The attack also provided a lesson to the rest of the world: when attacked, America will respond with all the awesome power it wields. That lesson was ignored by the sponsors of violent extremism, who were forced to relearn it following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

On this Pearl Harbor Day, remember those that responded to the surprise attack that day 71 years ago and fought on in the face of terrible destruction, displaying amazing bravery and selfless acts of courage. I hope that I will respond in the same way if faced with a similar situation. If you know or meet a World War II veteran, thank them for their service and ask them to share their stories - they are a national resource that is dwindling too quickly.