Pearl Harbor anniversary reminds Airmen of sacrifice, significance, 77 years later
Former president Franklin D. Roosevelt quoted the attacks on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, as “a day which will live in infamy.”
As the 77th anniversary of the attacks approaches, the day remains a turning point in U.S. history.
“The World War that resulted from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor literally rearranged the map of the world,” said Rick Sturdevant, Air Force Space Command deputy command historian. “It resulted in the collapse of all the great empires of the 19th century and left the United States and Soviet Union as superpowers.”
According to the Smithsonian Institution’s Smithsonian Magazine, Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor resulted in more than 2,000 deaths, including 238 Airmen. The attack stunned the American people who favored an approach of isolationism and indirect assistance to their European and Asian allies.
The attacks led the U.S. to formally declare war on the Axis powers - The Empire of Japan, Nazi Germany and fascist Italy - entering World War II.
Jim Mesco, 50th Space Wing historian, said the attacks left contemporary military leadership scratching their heads on how an attack force could so boldly assault American soil practically undetected (a large grouping of Japanese planes was detected but were mistaken for American bombers coming back from a sortie, and Japanese submarines were detected shortly before to little consequence). In a time of tangible warfare, where airplanes were seen more as a reconnaissance and complementary asset to ground forces, and where the power of radar and effective application of communications were just emerging, the attacks shed light on the value of military technology.
“This attack revealed the necessity of the need for higher quality, more effective technology and communications,” Mesco said. “Airpower coupled with communications became a cornerstone of military strategies then and is still vital to this day. The idea of moving technology forward was an aspect many key leaders began embracing.”
Mesco said the Japanese awakened a sleeping giant, and throughout the U.S., units were activated to assist in the war effort at full force - including a medium sized training group based in rural Michigan - the 50th Fighter Group, the 50th SW’s predecessor.
“This was all part of the Roosevelt’s military expansion effort,” he said. “It was coupled with the ‘50,000 Plane Plan’ in which Roosevelt wanted to build 50,000 combat aircraft and 50 combat groups to defend the U.S.”
The group trained pilots in both single-engine and twin-engine fighter aircraft for combat in the frontlines - combat which greater emphasized larger plane formations, sophisticated communications and airpower in general.
Later in 1944, to assist with the pivotal D-Day landings in Normandy, the group was transferred to England where its Airmen engaged in direct combat with German defenses.
Since The Battle of Britain demonstrated radar’s effectiveness, and after Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into the war, the importance of brains as opposed to brawns in warfare was given greater emphasis.
Mesco said on all fronts, technological advancements were crucial in aiding the war effort; military members reconstructed troop coordination, pioneered mechanized warfare, invented rockets - at the center piece were military communications, many of which are precursors to satellite technology.
"Remember Pearl Harbor,’ became a battle cry during World War II, and it has echoed ever since as a reminder the United States can't afford another Pearl Harbor in space, cyberspace, or any other domain,” Sturdevant said.
Mesco said while space and cyberspace were not even in its infancy, the attacks of Pearl Harbor were primary catalysts that lead to their birth, to be expanded after the war.
He added if the U.S. military had the same warfighting technology Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado, provides during the attack on Pearl Harbor, the outcome would’ve been drastically different.
“The best example to show how far we’ve come in our military technology is our response to the September 11 attacks,” Mesco said. “Like Pearl Harbor, it was a surprise attack on our soil. The difference is on 9/11, we quickly took control of the situation, our space and intelligence battle management systems were put into play very quickly.
“In a Pearl Harbor scenario with the technology we have now, we would know the movements of the planes to a pinpoint,” he continued. “We would have the means and deterrents to prevent the element of surprise.”
From the tragedy of Pearl Harbor 77 years ago, came the drive among Americans to achieve superiority in all domains, to include space and cyberspace.
Mesco said this superiority is found today within the 50th Space Wing and throughout Schriever – the epicenter of space.
“We continue to evolve, to not be complacent,” he said. “The Empire of Japan learned if you wound us, like in Pearl Harbor, we will fight back harder and take the war to you.”
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