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Public Papers - 1991 - December

Remarks at a Ceremony Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

1991-12-07

Thank you, Captain Ross. Thank you, sir. To our Secretary of Defense and our Chairman of our Joint Chiefs; members of our Cabinet; distinguished Governors here; and so many Members of the United States Congress; Admiral Larson; members of our Armed Forces, then and now; family and friends of the Arizona and Utah; fellow veterans. Thank you very much for that introduction, Don, and thank you all for that welcome.

It was a bright Sunday morning. Thousands of troops slept soundly in their bunks. Some who were awake looked out and savored the still and tranquil harbor.

And on the stern of the U.S.S. Nevada, a brass band prepared to play ``The Star Spangled Banner.'' On other ships, sailors readied for the 8 a.m. flag raising. Ray Emory, who was on the Honolulu, read the morning newspaper. Aboard California, yeoman Durell Connor wrapped Christmas presents. On the West Virginia, a machinist's mate looked at the photos just received from his wife. And they were of his 8-month-old son whom he had never seen.

On the mainland, people listened to the football games on the radio, turned to songs like the ``Chattanooga Choo-Choo,'' comics like ``Terry and the Pirates,'' movies like ``Sergeant York.'' In New York, families went window-shopping. Out West, it was late morning, many families still at church.

At first, to the American sailors at Pearl, the hum of engines sounded routine, and why not? To them, the idea of war seemed palpable but remote. And then, in one horrible instant, they froze in disbelief. The abstract threat was suddenly real.

But these men did not panic. They raced to their stations, and some strapped pistols over pajamas, and fought and died. And what lived was the shock wave that soon swept across America, forever immortalizing December 7th, 1941. Ask anyone who endured that awful Sunday. Each felt like the writer who observed: ``Life is never again as it was before anyone you love has died; never so innocent, never so gentle, never so pliant to your will.''

Today we honor those who gave their lives at this place, half a century ago. Their names were Bertie and Gomez and Dougherty and Granger. And they came from Idaho and Mississippi, the sweeping farmland of Ohio. And they were of all races and colors, native-born and foreign-born. And most of all, of course, they were Americans.

Think of how it was for these heroes of the Harbor, men who were also husbands, fathers, brothers, sons. Imagine the chaos of guns and smoke, flaming water, and ghastly carnage. Two thousand, four hundred and three Americans gave their lives. But in this haunting place, they live forever in our memory, reminding us gently, selflessly, like chimes in the distant night.

Every 15 seconds a drop of oil still rises from the Arizona and drifts to the surface. As it spreads across the water, we recall the ancient poet: ``In our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair against our will comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.'' With each drop, it is as though God Himself were crying. He cries, as we do, for the living and the dead: men like Commander Duncan Curry, firing a .45 at an attacking plane as tears streamed down his face.

We remember machinist's mate Robert Scott, who ran the air compressors powering the guns aboard California. And when the compartment flooded, the crew evacuated; Scott refused. ``This is my station,'' he said, ``I'm going to stay as long as the guns are going.'' And nearby, aboard New Orleans, the cruiser, Chaplain Forgy assured his troops it was all right to miss church that day. His words became legend: ``You can praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.''

Captain Ross, right here, then a warrant officer or was it a chief, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroism aboard Nevada that day. I salute him, the other Congressional Medal winners with us today, wherever they may be also.

For the defenders of Pearl, heroism came as naturally as breath. They reacted instinctively by rushing to their posts. They knew as well that our Nation would be sustained by the nobility of its cause.

So did Americans of Japanese ancestry who came by the hundreds to give wounded Americans blood, and the thousands of their kinsmen all across America who took up arms for their country. Every American believed in the cause.

The men I speak of would be embarrassed to be called heroes. Instead, they would tell you, probably with defiance: ``Foes can sink American ships, but not the American spirit. They may kill us, but never the ideals that made us proud to serve.''

Talk to those who survived to fight another day. They would repeat the Navy hymn that Barbara and I sing every Sunday in the lovely little chapel up at Camp David: ``Eternal Father, strong to save, Whose arm hath bound the restless wave . . . O hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea.''

Back in 1942, June of '42, I remember how Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War, defined the American soldier, and how that soldier should be, and I quote: ``Brave without being brutal, self-confident without boasting, being part of an irresistible might without losing faith in individual liberty.''

The heroes of the Harbor engraved that passage on every heart and soul. They fought for a world of peace, not war, where children's dreams speak more loudly than the brashest tyrant's guns. Because of them, this memorial lives to pass its lessons from one generation to the next, lessons as clear as this Pacific sky.

One of Pearl Harbor's lessons is that together we could ``summon lightness against the dark''; that was Dwight Eisenhower. Another, that when it comes to national defense, finishing second means finishing last.

World War II also taught us that isolationism is a bankrupt notion. The world does not stop at our water's edge. And perhaps above all, that real peace, real peace, the peace that lasts, means the triumph of freedom, not merely the absence of war.

And as we look down at -- Barbara and I just did -- at Arizona's sunken hull, tomb to more than 1,000 Americans, the beguiling calm comforts us, reminds us of the might of ideals that inspire boys to die as men. Everyone who aches at their sacrifice knows America must be forever vigilant. And Americans must always remember the brave and the innocent who gave their lives to keep us free.

Each Memorial Day, not far from this spot, the heroes of Pearl Harbor are honored. Two leis are placed upon each grave by Hawaiian Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. We must never forget that it is for them, the future, that we must apply the lessons of the past.

In Pearl Harbor's wake, we won the war and, thus, the peace. In the cold war that followed, Americans also shed their blood, but we used other means as well. For nearly half a century, patience, foresight, personal diplomacy helped America stand fast and firm for democracy.

But we've never stood alone. Beside us stood nations committed to democracy and free markets and free expression and freedom of worship, nations that include our former enemies, Germany, Italy, and Japan. This year these same nations stood with us against aggression in the Persian Gulf.

You know, the war in the Gulf was so different: different enemy, different circumstances, the outcome never in doubt. It was short; thank God our casualties mercifully few. But I ask you veterans of Pearl Harbor and all Americans who remember the unity of purpose that followed that momentous December day 50 years ago: Didn't we see that same strength of national spirit when we launched Desert Storm?

The answer is a resounding ``yes.'' Once the war for Kuwait began, we pulled together. We were united, determined, and we were confident. And when it was over, we rejoiced in exactly the same way that we did in 1945 -- heads high, proud, and grateful. And what a feeling. Fifty years had passed, but, let me tell you, the American spirit is as young and fresh as ever.

This unity of purpose continues to inspire us in the cause of peace among nations. In their own way, amidst the bedlam and the anguish of that awful day, the men of Pearl Harbor served that noble cause, honored it. They knew the things worth living for but also worth dying for: Principle, decency, fidelity, honor.

And so, look behind you at battleship row -- behind me, the gun turret still visible, and the flag flying proudly from a truly blessed shrine.

Look into your hearts and minds: You will see boys who this day became men and men who became heroes.

Look at the water here, clear and quiet, bidding us to sum up and remember. One day, in what now seems another lifetime, it wrapped its arms around the finest sons any nation could ever have, and it carried them to a better world.

May God bless them. And may God bless America, the most wondrous land on Earth.

Note: The President spoke at 8:10 a.m. from the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He was introduced by Captain Donald K. Ross, retired U.S. Navy, a surviving crewmember of the U.S.S. Nevada and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient. During his remarks, the President referred to Admiral Charles Larson, Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Command. Following his remarks, the President met with survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack.

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