Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Health Care and the Day of Infamy

Seventy years ago today, the nation was rocked with a surprise attack on American naval forces at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. On an early Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, the government of Japan launched a deadly raid that killed thousands of service men and women and destroyed a huge portion of the US Sixth Fleet. The next day, President Franklin Roosevelt addressed the American public by radio and announced the horrific deed as the Day that will live in infamy. Congress immediately declared war on Japan, and then Americans were thrown into the largest worldwide conflict in history. Besides the nearly 2,400 who were killed, the attack left 1,178 people wounded, sank or heavily damaged a dozen U.S. warships and destroyed 323 aircraft, badly crippling the Pacific fleet.

Today, seven decades later, there are far fewer survivors left to remember and give honor to those that were casualties on that dark day. In 1991, which marked the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States Congress established the Pearl Harbor Commemorative Medal. This is also known as the Pearl Harbor Survivor's Medal and can be awarded to any veteran of the United States military who were present in or around Pearl Harbor during the attack by the Japanese military. The medal can be awarded to civilians, who were killed or injured in the attack.

Memorials have been built to remember or to symbolize the day. For example, the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor is a marble memorial built over the sunken USS Arizona, which was dedicated in 1962. The memorial remembers all military personnel who were killed in the Pearl Harbor attack. The memorial was designed by architect Alfred Preis, an Austrian-born resident who lived in Honolulu and was placed at a detainment camp after the Pearl Harbor attack as part of the internment policy of Japanese and German Americans at the time.

Another memorial that commemorates Pearl Harbor Day is the USS Utah, a battleship that was attacked and sunk in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. A memorial to honor the crew of the USS Utah was dedicated on the northwest shore of Ford Island, near the ship's wreck, in 1972. The ship was added to the National Register of Historic Places and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1989. It is also Utah’s official state ship. Memorabilia, books, and movies about the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 have also been made available to the public over the years.

According to the New York Times, for more than half a century, members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association gathered here every Dec. 7 to commemorate the attack by the Japanese that drew the United States into World War II. Others stayed closer to home for more intimate regional chapter ceremonies, sharing memories of a day they still remember in searing detail. But no more. The 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack will be the last one marked by the survivors’ association. With a concession to the reality of time — of age, of deteriorating health and death — the association will disband on Dec. 31.

The fact that this moment was inevitable has made this no less a difficult year for the survivors, some of whom are concerned that the event that defined their lives will soon be just another chapter in a history book, with no one left to go to schools and Rotary Club luncheons to offer a firsthand testimony of that day. The association was founded in 1958 with a roster of 28,000, all members of the military who had been on the island of Oahu the morning of the attack. It was granted a Congressional charter in October 1985. Membership had fallen to 2,700 as of Sept. 1; given the continuing death toll and the declining health of men who are all around 90 years old or older, that figure exaggerates the actual strength of the organization, which is why the their board voted to close down. Deaths were only part of the problem. Most of the survivors are well into their 90s; and a lot are housebound and can’t travel. Plus, a lot are in rest homes, so it becomes a tremendous problem at this age.

Due to the aging of these veterans, and many in poor or declining health, Pearl Harbor Day has now started to fade in the memories of survivors from that fateful day. Although horrific in its impact, the sacrifices made by those who paid the ultimate price should never be forgotten by a nation who continues to be at the forefront of international military action. Providing for the health care of those who are still living is a way to honor those now in their late 80's and 90's. May America remember, and may it stand beside the memorials of those who kept it safe. May those who still live from that time and continue to draw breath know that their service will not be forgotten. Give thanks today for our liberty and freedom, and never forget.

Until next time.

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