By Lt. Colonel Oliver North (USMC-Ret)

As a boy I had read about the attack on Pearl Harbor, that “day of infamy,” seen the pictures and newsreels, and later studied it at the Naval Academy. Then I visited this hallowed place while commuting to and from other wars. But it wasn’t until I began interviewing those who were young men and women on 7 December 1941 that I began to grasp what that day was really like and what it meant to a generation of Americans. More than six decades after the event, every one of these warriors and their contemporaries, no matter where they were at the time, can recall exactly what they were doing and who they were with when they learned about the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.

Many of them didn’t even know where this Hawaiian naval base was when they first heard about the raid. But everyone knew what it meant: America was now in the war that most had hoped to avoid.

In the days after the attack, newspapers, magazines, and newsreels at local movie theaters quickly educated the American people about the geography of Hawaii—and the damage that had been done to America’s Pacific Fleet. That same “Remember Pearl Harbor!” rallying cry became a call to battle for the legions of young men showing up at recruiting and induction centers.

It was a slogan that stuck, all the way across the broad expanse of ocean and bloody battles of what came to be called the Pacific theater of the war. Newspapers printed full-page maps of the region, and families tacked them up on the kitchen and living room walls so that sweethearts, wives, parents, and siblings could keep track of where their loved ones were serving in the far reaches of that vast ocean. Tiny dots on those maps and locations with unpronounceable names became places to pray about in churches and weep over in the privacy of bedrooms.

The ocean that spanned those maps was anything but pacific during World War II. From the opening shots fired here at Pearl Harbor to the armistice signed in Tokyo Bay three years, eight months, and twenty-four days later, this body of water and its islands were the venue for the biggest air and naval engagements in history and some of the bloodiest land battles ever fought.

The enemy that America was pitted against in the Pacific proved to be an implacable foe. Unlike our European adversaries—the Vichy French, Mussolini’s Italian Legions, or the German Wehrmacht—no Japanese Imperial Army unit ever surrendered until the armistice was signed on the deck of the USS Missouri on 2 September 1945. The Japanese literally fought to the death.

Wherever they served on air, land, or sea, the young Americans sent off to contend with the Japanese army, navy, or air force proved to be a remarkable lot. They are men and women often described in superlatives. Most were born in the aftermath of The War to End All Wars, were toddlers in the Roaring Twenties, and came of age during the Great Depression. Though few were unaffected by these events and the global economic catastrophe that began in America with the stock market crash of 1929, nearly all I’ve known have possessed a remarkable sense of optimism.