Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pearl Harbor and history's ironies

Commander Mitsuo Fuchida knew he was making history as he led the first wave of 183 Japanese aircraft past Honolulu toward Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7. But would this first chapter end with triumph or catastrophe? When the silent, anchored American fleet came into view, the question quickly answered itself. At 07:53 Fuchida he signaled the code words "Tora! Tora! Tora!" They had taken the Americans by complete surprise. Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Commander in Chief Pacific (CINCPAC), was reduced to simply signaling: "AIR RAID ON PEARL HARBOR X THIS IS NOT DRILL." As the Japanese dive bombers, torpedo bombers, and fighters rolled into their attacks, Fuchida climbed to 9,000 feet to observe and coordinate the unfolding scene below him. Circling over battleship row, he watched the USS Arizona meet her fate in real time. "The smoke and flame erupted together, it was a hateful, mean-looking red flame, the kind that powder produces, and I knew at once that a big powder magazine had exploded. Joy and gratification filled my heart at the time, for I knew now that our mission would be a success," he later said. Of the 1,400 sailors who manned the Arizona, only 200 would survive the "day of infamy." Fuchida went on to fight other air battles in the Pacific and, by the slimmest of margins, survived World War II. While attending a conference in Hiroshima during early August 1945, Fuchida was recalled to Tokyo. The next day, August 6, the city was obliterated by the atom bomb. Fuchida rushed back to Hiroshima the following day with a damage assessment team. Every member of the party later died from radiation poisoning -- except Fuchida. Fate, it seems, wanted him alive. Ironically, the Imperial Japanese Navy pilot who joyfully watched Americans die at Pearl Harbor, became a U.S. citizen himself in 1966. He devoted the rest of his life to Christian missionary work. Fuchida died at age 73 in 1976. Such are the vagaries of history.

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