Tuesday, September 11, 2001
What can anyone say that has not already been said by someone else? This is my personal perspective, somewhat brought on by our grandson, Devin's, close-up encounters at the Pentagon just a short time after it was hit.
The terrorists' attack on America has been somewhat compared to the sneak attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. True, they were both sneak attacks, but I think there are three major differences, as we view them now in hindsight. This comparison, in no way, reduces the horror of both those disastrous events.
I believe the biggest difference is that in December 1941, our country was already preparing for a war. We were well aware of the German advances in Europe; England was engaged in that war; and, from afar, we were attempting to help England and the European countries with whom we had friendly relations. Pearl Harbor was the event that triggered our entering the war wholeheartedly. We would have done it anyway, but, up to that time, there had been no immediate situation that dictated it.
From a somewhat historical point-of-view, let me review briefly the European conditions that prevailed at that time. In 1939, Germany invaded Poland; and Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. In 1940, Germany learned the value of submarine warfare; Great Britain was losing 280,000 tons of ships per month, and they could rebuild at a rate of only one-third that amount. Winston Churchill had already realized England's most serious weakness, when he stated: "The only thing that ever really frightened me was the U-boat peril". At that time, the U.S. was unprepared for war. It was not our war. We gave 50 destroyers to England under a lend-lease program. In September-October 1941, we started escorting large English convoys in trans-Atlantic shipping. It was during one of those convoy missions that our first U.S. destroyer was sunk by a German torpedo. Germany had about 200 ocean-class submarines, and they were building more at the rate of 20 per month. Their submarines were patrolling our East Coast regularly. All our activity was concentrated on the European war. Then came Pearl Harbor, early on the morning of December 7, 1941.
The dead: 2,400; the wounded: 1,200. Material damage: 3 battleships destroyed (the Oklahoma, the Arizona, and the West Virginia), 18 ships damaged, 169 aircraft destroyed, and the Pearl Harbor Naval Base in ruins! Yes, it certainly was a surprise -- and a deadly serious one. But it instantaneously ignited a national resolve to fight a war. And our country responded in an unbelievably rapid and decisive manner. It took almost four years to bring that war to a conclusion; and it probably took the world's first two atomic bombs to make it complete and immediate.
Now, please excuse my personal input at this point. Where was I on that December 7? Dr. Frederick V. ("Ted") Hunt, noted acoustics professor at Harvard University, had been asked months earlier by the U.S. Navy to set up an acoustics lab to study the vagaries of underwater sound and to determine methods of detecting submarines. Ted Hunt and Dr. Paul Boner, noted acoustics professor at the University of Texas, had gotten their Ph.D. degrees together at Harvard a few years earlier. Ted Hunt came to the University of Texas in early October 1941 to talk to Paul Boner and the Physics Department Faculty, and ask them to recommend some of their staff to join this undertaking at Harvard. At that time, I was a young 23-year old Lecture Assistant to Dr. Boner, and, two years earlier, I had completed my M.A.-degree work in the general field of atomic and electron physics and radioactivity. I had no experience in, and very little knowledge of, acoustics or electronics. However, the Physics Department Faculty recommended that three of us go to Harvard: my good friend and roommate at that time, Charles Rutherford (later to become my Best Man when Lucy and I were married), Frank Seay (whom I hardly knew at that time, but who became another good long-time friend, as well as an Usher in our wedding)), and me. We left Texas on or about October 10, 1941, and joined another Texan (Eugene Ennis) who already had an apartment in Cambridge near Harvard University, where he was working in an aviation electronics lab set up under the Army Air Force by Dr. Leo L. Beranek. We three were becoming acquainted with this new field of underwater sound, but were not yet sufficiently acquainted to be able to know anything at all about our final products, namely, major improvements to SONAR and the development of a completely new weapon, the acoustic homing torpedo. As newcomers to New England, we were in Charles' car, driving up along the North Shore of the Boston area (specifically around Beverly and Beverly Farms) on Sunday afternoon, December 7. The radio broadcast was interrupted with the news of Pearl Harbor. We could hardly believe it. The whole country was in a state of shock and surprise; yet, the United States had been exposed for nearly two years to the fact that there was a European war and the possible threat of our becoming involved. Nevertheless, the Japanese "sneak attack" on Pearl Harbor came as a surprise, and, because we were caught unprepared, the losses were staggering!
So, by comparison, the September 11, 2001, terrorists' attack in New York and Washington (as well as in rural Pennsylvania, and maybe some other places before this is over) also came as a surprise, completely unanticipated. But, a major difference is that, for the September 11 event, there were no preparatory signals such as the wartime environment that we had before the December 7 surprise. . . . Well, maybe there was a signal that we didn't recognize or remember: the terrorists' attempt back in 1993 to bomb the underpinnings of the World Trade Center buildings.
At the beginning, I mentioned three significant differences between Pearl Harbor and September 11, 2001. The second difference, in my opinion, is the widespread coverage of current events by television. We had no such coverage in 1941. We had interrupted radio announcements and a follow-up talk from President Franklin D. Roosevelt on "the day of infamy". That was all very dramatic, and the leadership of the President took us into World War II. In retrospect, it is just unbelievable how this country responded: The whole economy was converted from civilian to military almost overnight. And, we began to fight a slow, defensive war at two vastly different and remote locations and from two different oceans.
By comparison, on the morning of September 11, 2001, we saw on our television sets in our own homes and businesses: a tall, beautiful, highly visible, majestic symbol of U.S. pride and industry, one of the two 110-floor Twin Towers of New York's World Trade Center, with a gash in its side and pouring out great quantities of billowing smoke from its upper floors; then, only minutes later, we saw (LIVE on TV) another full-size commercial airliner plow right into the side of the second of those Twin Towers, forming a giant fireball of explosive fuel at the impact. Two hours later, while we continued to watch, both towers crumbled to the ground from the damage of the impacts and the internal fires set by the explosive, burning fuel. And, we saw it LIVE on TV! This was not a Hollywood simulation; this was the real thing! People at the scene, describing it later, say that the reality of being there was overwhelming compared to what we see on TV! On TV, we view something that is presented on a screen of about 20- to 30-inch width. This does not give the drama nor show the complete and widespread ruin and the full panoramic view of being there in the midst of it all -- with blocks of buildings smashed to the ground and heaps and heaps of the rubble and debris from those fallen giants. And, they say, the smells from the scene and the fine powdery dust and smoke cannot be appreciated from our living room viewing. This total impact on our senses (both from the small-screen TV viewpoint and the on-the-scene real-life presence) makes this event go far beyond the recollections that we have of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, as horrible as that was at its time in our lives and our history. Here and now, the 6000 (+/-) lives taken, the destruction of all that civilian property, the horrible way in which it was carried out, and the just plain evil intent behind this -- all this is incomprehensible! The Pentagon belongs in this review, too. It represents the heart of our nation, our National Capitol! Although it had less loss of life and might be more reasonably considered a bona-fide military target, the people killed and wounded, the damage and the losses, and the surprise factors are just as real, just slightly smaller in magnitude. So, this nationwide, on-the-spot television presentation gives it a real-life immediacy and urgency that is not found by our modern generations looking back into history books of 1941-45. To me, that makes September 11 much worse and very different from December 7!
There is a third major difference in our perception of the surprise attacks of December 7, 1941 and September 11, 2001. This third, very big, difference is that Pearl Harbor was not on the mainland of our country; it was thousands of miles away and relatively few people had traveled there. So, to a certain extent, it was like a far distant land for our colloquial, unimaginative, pedestrian thinking at that time. New York City and Washington, on the other hand, are very much on the mainland and are at the virtual heart of our country. In murdering over 6000 of our citizens, the terrorists struck a real blow to our entire country, to our society, to our thinking, to our seeming complacency, and perhaps to our civilized world.
On September 13, we spent a large amount of time listening to and watching the Day of Remembrance ceremony at the Washington National Cathedral. The Reverend Billy Graham gave a beautiful sermon. Suffering from Parkinson's Disease, his physical ability would have suggested that he couldn't do it, but his voice was strong and his message was clear and most meaningful. Later, in the program, President George W. Bush gave his remarks -- equally profound, personal, and pertinent. I found myself wanting copies of both their talks. Sure enough, with two hours of searching on the Internet, I found both of those talks. I will not include them here because of their total length, but I have them.
Then, on September 14, we viewed a part of the funeral of The Reverend Mychal Judge, Chaplain of the New York City Fire Department, who was at the scene administering last rites to a fireman when they were hit by the falling building. Many of his humanitarian acts were being described as the casket was being moved to the hearse. The streets were crowded with several thousand Firemen from New York City and other departments around the United States. There will follow probably more than 6,000 other funerals and memorial services around the country (and world), as we mourn the losses of these people who were taken in this cowardly act by the terrorists. And, believe it or not, the terrorists justify this as a large part of their religious belief..
Some of the irony of all this is: The terrorists used our airliner passengers as hostages, our airplanes as carriers, and everyday aircraft fuel as their explosive. What a heinous act of civilized humanity! Not a military surprise like Pearl Harbor, but a totally unpredictable incursion, with death, into the lives and loves of thousands of innocent, law-abiding, peaceful people and their families and their nation!
The historic slogan that justified the American Revolution in 1776 was "Taxation without Representation!". Francis Scott Key wrote "The Star Spangled Banner" in the midst of the War of 1812. "Remember the Alamo!" followed the deaths of Davy Crockett and other Texas heroes in 1836. "Remember the Maine!" was the battle cry that launched the Spanish American War in 1898. "To make the world safe for democracy" was our nation's incentive to enter World War I, which came to be known as "The war to end all wars". "Remember Pearl Harbor!" was the rallying cry at our entry into World War II in 1941. How will we remember this tragedy of September 11, 2001 at the Pentagon and the World Trade Center? President George W. Bush has already called it the beginning of the first war in the Twenty-first Century -- a very different war, by any comparison.