Shuffling around his snow-shrouded, single-story Duluth home in December 2000, Hilmer Hadselford — then 80, with a cane in one hand and a strong cup of coffee in the other — told a story he hadn’t shared much since Dec. 7, 1941.
He was there, at Pearl Harbor, that beautiful, bright Sunday morning that so famously, tragically, and historically came to be known as the “day that will live in infamy,” as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dubbed it.
The kid from Duluth was on shore that morning while his ship, the heavy cruiser USS Salt Lake City, was out to sea, conducting firing practice. He was in the direct path when Japanese bombers and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition rained down, delivering death and destruction and drawing the U.S. into World War II.
“I was taking a little snooze and all of a sudden, 'BANG!' All hell broke loose, and I mean all hell,” Hadselford recalled. “We shot at them planes as much as we could. Some of them were so low we could have thrown rocks at them. You could see the (Japanese) pilots smiling. We shot down quite a few of them. Bombs were dropping all around. I don't know what I was thinking. Scared to death.''
Within only about 30 minutes, more than 2,400 U.S. personnel, including 68 civilians, were killed; hundreds of aircraft were destroyed; and 21 ships were sunk, beached, or damaged. The wreckage included the USS Arizona, which went down with nearly 1,200 crewmen on board.
In six years and 11 days of military service, nothing would ever compare to that morning, said Hadselford, believed to be Duluth's last living Pearl Harbor survivor.
For years, on the anniversary of the attack, Hadselford was among those to toss a wreath into the Duluth Harbor in memory of his fallen comrades, and in the hope that others might remember the date, too, that future generations might never forget.
The tradition continues on Pearl Harbor Day today, the 80th anniversary.
“Freedom comes at a price,'' Hadselford said. “Ninety percent of the young people today don't even know Pearl Harbor. They don't know what Dec. 7 stands for. They really need to.''
In 1951, just a decade removed from the attack, a pair of reporters fanned out in downtown Duluth, asking, "Do you know anything special about today?” Already, the anniversary and its overwhelming significance tragically was being lost. Only eight of 25 people polled recalled it was National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. And half of them were military members or veterans.
Imagine if such polling were conducted on the streets today. How long before anyone at all would provide an accurate response?
The sad reality is that busy lives roll on. New moments of significance occur. Those who lived through and were affected by the horribleness of significant events start dying off. And then we forget. Or choose not to recall.
"Remember the Maine" was a rallying cry after the U.S. battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor in 1898, helping to spark the Spanish-American war. Nobody remembers the Maine now.
Even the significance of Sept. 11, 2001 — the Pearl Harbor of a new generation — is sliding toward oblivion.
So why remember Pearl Harbor? Because the day continues to impact U.S. foreign policy, for one reason. For more than 70 years, that policy, at its core, has had as a goal preventing another Pearl Harbor, as the Gaston Gazette of Gaston County, North Carolina, pointed out in 2012. "Life would be forever different as a result" of Pearl Harbor, the paper said in an editorial.
Another reason is our global standing and how it shifted suddenly that Sunday morning in Hawaii. "The attack," the Gazette stated, "sealed America's fate to be a global leader during World War II and beyond."
The Times and Democrat of Orangeburg, South Carolina, went as far as to argue that Pearl Harbor made the U.S. the nation it is today, which clearly is another reason to never forget. "Older people lament that younger generations do not and will not remember what happened that day," Orangeburg's 2010 editorial read. "But veterans expect (the) media not to forget. … So many Americans were lost that day and in the years after. They made possible the nation we take so for granted."
Remember Pearl Harbor. We don’t need to have been there like Hilmer Hadselford was to push back against its fade into history. We can ensure instead that the significance of today’s anniversary never becomes just another historical footnote.
“It brings back lots of memories every year. All the friends I lost,'' Hadselford shared in 2000 while digging through his Navy sea bag for the first time in five and a half decades. “It's important never to forget. Show people the freedom they've got today, where it came from.''
This other view is the opinion of the editorial board of our sister publication, the Duluth News Tribune.