Dates that live in infamy: 12/7/1941 and 9/11/2001


Just three months short of 60 years ago, we lived through another barbaric horror. Most of us thought it would never be repeated. Yet, the images of Pearl Harbor and the twin towers are so tragically sickening.

In December 1941, I was in college, the president of the student council at City College’s School of Business — today Baruch College. On Monday, Dec. 8, at a college assembly with many city officials including Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in attendance, I was on the platform to pledge the college’s full support behind President Franklin D. Roosevelt in our war with Japan.

The previous day, I had been at the Polo Grounds watching a New York Giants-Brooklyn Dodgers football game. Eerily, the loudspeakers echoed with frequent calls for generals and other officers to return immediately to headquarters.

Ace Parker outplayed Tuffy Leemans, and the Dodgers won 14-7. As we left the stadium, walking down the long, narrow, circular ramp, young newsboys in caps and knickers with orange-hued copies of the New York Graphic held aloft, were shouting: “Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor! Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor!”

I held the hand of my younger brother. Along with all the other exiting fans, I had no idea what or where Pearl Harbor was or its military significance.

That evening, on radio, we all learned as FDR made his historic “day of infamy” speech.

President George W. Bush, speaking to the nation following Tuesday’s hijacking of four commercial aircraft — the unbelievable destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon — could have called it nothing less than an “act of insanity.” For it truly was.

At 9 o’clock last Tuesday, Sept. 11, I made a call to Long Island and was told all circuits were busy. A few moments later, I tried again. Unsuccessfully. My wife turned on the television set. It was horrendous.

We saw replay after replay of the plane flying right into the World Trade Center. For the next 15 hours, we were glued to that screen.

Sixty years ago, there was radio, and we had to wait for the “Fox Movietone News” for any visual reporting. Today, we are instant spectators, and the images are overwhelming.

New technology — the explosive marriage of sight and sound, hand-held digitized video — allows anyone with skill, equipment and nerve to become on-the-scene reporters. All day, new video kept bringing that tragedy closer and closer, making it more explicit and so much more painful.

This was New York, where dogs were sniffing for victims. Not some nameless, far-off country.

At the end of the day, I listened to two Davids — one a noted historian, David McCullough; the other a leading author and journalist, David Halberstam — solemnly discuss the unspeakable terrorist violence, and how this was far worse than Pearl Harbor.

Then, we were approaching war. Hawaii was a critical naval target, home of our entire Pacific fleet.

Now the target is innocent civilians and the very spirit and structure of democratic, Western civilization. Mindless hatred of Israel — another democratic outpost — further inflames the terrorist passion for blood.

In ‘41, Japanese planes and suicide pilots took 2,300 lives, destroying and sinking 19 naval vessels — including eight battleships. The Arizona — of those battleships — now serves as a tomb and shrine.

Today’s anonymous enemy turns our own commercial aircraft into human bombs and crashes them into landmarks of American strength and commerce.

In so doing, they take a frightful, numbing toll of innocent, human life that far exceeds anything we could ever imagine.

Pearl Harbor changed us, and ultimately strengthened us. The World Trade Center’s destruction will ultimately do the same. But what a price to pay.

In reviewing today’s tearful, historic events, there’s a final twist to the story. Those who planned and carried out the World Trade Center operation were undoubtedly armed with detailed intelligence, and aware of critical security lapses.

The same was true of Pearl Harbor. In 1942, by coincidence, I was drafted and stationed in Hawaii. It was not difficult to relive the attack and see why those enemy planes came in at 6 on a Sunday morning.

Saturday was always a spirited late-night, fun time at officer clubs and enlisted man hangouts. The military slept late, and on-duty sentries were sleepy and slow to react.

But I was always puzzled that while Japanese planes destroyed our ships and leveled Hickam and Wheeler air fields, they ignored the many oil drums and tanks that dotted the shoreline of Honolulu. This would certainly have spread more damage and destruction.

I subsequently made friends with Hawaiians and asked that specific question. I was told we were dealing with a foreign enemy that had skilled intelligence, field cells and many accomplices.

Why didn’t they bomb these drums? They were empty.

— Originally published Sept. 20, 2001

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Richard Gilbert,