Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, September 12, 2001

America's bloodiest day
Surprise act of war invokes specter of other day of infamy

By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

The words spilled out of his telephone, and Ray Emory found them hard to fathom.

A friend on the other end, calling yesterday at 5:30 a.m., frantic that something was "worse than Pearl Harbor" and then hanging up.

"I thought what the hell could be worse than Pearl Harbor?" Emory said. "I soon found out."

Planes deliberately slamming into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Fire pouring from the Pentagon. A catastrophic death toll that no one could count.

As he watched, U.S. leaders invoked the memory of Pearl Harbor, which until yesterday was regarded as the nation's worst surprise attack.

Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., called the attacks "our second Pearl Harbor." Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said they were "this generation's Pearl Harbor." And Adm. Robert J. Natter, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, said: "We have been attacked like we haven't since Pearl Harbor.

The 80-year-old Emory had to agree. Like veterans across the nation, he made the connection to another day of infamy, one he had witnessed firsthand.

It made him angry.

"It's kind of unbelievable," said Emory, who fought Japanese attackers from the USS Honolulu. "You just want to go back, like Dec. 7, 1941, and take on those bastards right now and get it over with."

Ironically, the terrorist acts on the East Coast prompted the National Park Service to close the USS Arizona Memorial indefinitely.

If it had been open, visitors would have heard the motto of Pearl Harbor survivors, the same words they have spoken for nearly 60 years: Remember Pearl Harbor. Keep America Alert.

But Ed Chappell, national president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, said their meaning has been lost.

"We have failed," he said from his home in Lake Havasu, Ariz. "The whole country has failed. We did not keep America alert. We are all at fault."

As he watched the images of death, endlessly replayed by TV newscasters, the 77-year-old Chappell couldn't help but compare what he was seeing with what he experienced as a young man.

"We were complacent then and we are complacent now," he said. "Sixty years ago we had the same damn thing, only a different time, a different place."

Dick Fiske, who was a bugler on the USS West Virginia when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, said the terrorist attack was an act of war.

Fiske is a normally forgiving man. He has even embraced the pilots who sank his ship. But the attack yesterday was different, somehow.

"I'm so doggone mad," said the 79-year-old Fiske. "I want to get over there and fight. You better believe it. It's a war. It's a war between the terrorists and the United States."

Just as it did in 1941, the nation needs to respond without ambiguity, said Warren Verhoff, an 80-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor who often lectures children on the attack.

"When we find out who did it, which we will, take action on them," Verhoff said. "When we catch them, let's have a quick trial and hang them."

If emotions were running hot within survivors, one of the people who know them best was numb from the experience. Dan Martinez, the historian for the Arizona Memorial, was in Washington yesterday on vacation.

He saw the smoke from the Pentagon. He stared at disbelieving citizens. He watched military jets circle the capital city.

It wasn't hard to imagine a nation at war.

"Right now, this country is being tested," he said by telephone. "We don't know the length of the test or what it will be, but I think it's time for some pretty deep reflection."