Sometimes, symbolism is just as important to history as the historical event itself. So, when Japanese torpedo planes and dive bombers emblazoned with the rising sun came out of the north, many circling in from the east out of the real rising sun on a sleepy Sunday morning 71 years ago, the world would never be the same.
That a vast armada of men, ships and planes traversed the vast Pacific Ocean to attack America’s naval base at Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian Island of Oahu, was in and of itself a huge achievement for the Japanese Empire.
Taking advantage of surprise and poor weather, Japan had awakened a sleeping giant with this blatant act of war, as historians are wont to say of Dec. 7, 1941.
Americans of all cuts and stripes had done their best to ignore Nazi Germany and the Second World War as it traversed Europe.
They had cast nervous sideways glances, but had ignored naked Japanese aggression in the Far East as well.
Yet, in just about 110 minutes of hell for the American military, Japan had gained our collective attention.
Whether it was arrogance or miscalculation or having a plan that was never thought through from beginning to end, Japan would unleash the soon-to-be greatest military power on Earth upon its own soldiers and sailors — and its own people.
It turned out to be the beginning of the end for the Empire of Japan.
The first wave of the aircraft attack on Pearl Harbor was launched north of the islands in three waves.
The first group targeted U.S. battleships and aircraft, the second assaulted both Ford Island and Wheeler Field, and the final group struck grounded aircraft at Ford and Wheeler, as well as Hickam Field, Barber’s Point and Kaneohe.
The pride of the U.S. fleet was its eight battleships, including the USS Oklahoma, which saw half of them sunk, destroyed or too badly damaged to be of further use to the Navy.
And while this may at first seem a somewhat crass statement, in light of all the lives lost and lives changed that fateful December day, the Japanese in fact did this nation a favor with its surprise attack.
It not only awakened America that it couldn’t be isolated from the rest of the world without major consequences, it changed military thinking and planning from that day forth.
When Continental soldiers challenged British regulars in the early days of the American Revolution by forgoing the infantry tactics of the day — standing steadfast in ranks with fixed bayonets and firing at one another from close range — Americans quickly became the innovators of modern guerrilla warfare.
We altered the way war was waged by challenging and changing the rules.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan forced us into changing the rules of warfare.
Battleships were the folly of a bygone era, when one of the ponderous war wagons could anchor in waters near an offending nation, and scare it into acquiescence.
Aircraft carriers, which were the real backbone of the U.S. Navy, soon would become the new battleship, with unprecedented mobility, firepower and tactical advantage employing soon-to-be developed fighters and dive bombers.
The Japanese, using their own carriers and planes, had changed the way war was to be waged in the future.
And, the lesson was not lost on America.
It’s always been said, almost without challenge through world history and its unending series of wars — generals and commanders always fight the next war using tactics and military training from the previous war.
That has its place but also many pitfalls. The tactics of Stonewall Jackson still are taught at the U.S. Military Academy, because of their audacity and brilliance.
But, we no longer fight using the bayonet or single-shot musket.
It’s planning outside the box of conventional thinking that is the point of exercise when taught to young cadets.
It’s turning a perceived weakness into an advantage when your opponent is stronger, more skilled or more well-armed than you are.
Continental soldiers fired from behind trees and stone walls and fences at British regulars back in 1775. It just wasn’t done.
Stonewall Jackson outmarched, outfought and outmaneuvered armies four times his size during the Civil War’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign. It just wasn’t done.
This week, those many years ago, the Japanese used a surprise attack against a fleet of American battleships, perceived as one of the strongest navies on the globe. It just wasn’t done.
Sadly, it cost the lives of 2,335 heroic U.S. servicemen killed and 1,143 wounded to learn that hard lesson.
The Japanese lost but 65 men in the engagement.
Yet, with that sacrifice by Americans at sun-drenched Pearl Harbor, and on islands from Iwo Jima to Saipan, the sun — symbolically — set on the Japanese Empire less than four years later.
Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking