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Franklin D. Roosevelt

‘The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.’ — President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dec. 8, 1941

Ships and planes burn as the Japanese Imperial Navy launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.

By Rich Acritelli

The above words were parts of the “Day in Infamy” speech that President Franklin Roosevelt presented to Americans directly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor some 79 years ago.  As the United States is currently battling COVID-19, many decades ago, our citizens were fighting for a different type of survival. On that Sunday morning, Americans woke up to one of the most startling pieces of news that ever struck this country. As our people listened to their radios, they quickly realized that our powerful military in Hawaii was devastated by the Empire of Japan. In a matter of moments, a nation that was once hesitant to fight the Axis powers was now immediately engaged in a massive war.

The tropical paradise of Hawaii had its skies marred by the first wave of 183 Japanese Zero fighter planes that aggressively responded to their orders of “Tora, Tora, Tora.” Large numbers of Japanese aircraft took off from their carriers as they were cheered on the decks by the crews.  In one of the largest national security blunders to ever harm the nation, the American intelligence system lost the Japanese fleet which sailed undetected from their home waters and emerged 230 miles off the coast of Oahu. While these waves were detected by radar, no alarm was issued due to the belief that these enemy aircraft were American B-17 Flying Fortresses that were traveling from San Diego. When military leaders in Washington D.C. feared that an attack was imminent, an American alert was finally issued to the senior military officers. Every Sunday morning, General George C. Marshall routinely rode his horse and this report sat at his home for almost two hours before he responded to this possible threat.

Within a short period, the beautiful skies overhead were darkened by the smoke of naval ships, aircraft, army equipment, and fuel dumps that were destroyed by bombs. Japanese planes accurately swarmed over “Battleship Row” to bomb the large American fighting ships. Again, another wave of Japanese organized 54 high level bombers and 78 dive-bombers, all of whom were escorted by 36 fighter planes. To make the strafing missions easier for the Japanese, many of the American military aircraft were situated extremely close together out of fears that Japanese agents would sabotage them. This same placement of planes was utilized by General Douglas R. MacArthur in the Philippines. Like in Hawaii, many of the planes and bombers were crippled on the ground, as the Japanese gained complete air superiority against American air, army and naval forces. The well-coordinated Japanese attack also presented the new fear that if they had landed their army forces in Hawaii, it was possible for them to take these islands.  

During this surprise attack, Secretary of State Cordell Hull spoke with representatives from the Japanese Embassy in Washington D.C. As he spoke to his counterparts, Hull was informed by his aide’s that Pearl Harbor was being hit at that very moment. It was the task of these diplomats to give Hull a lengthy document of major grievances against the American government. They understood that the time to attack was near, and it was the goal of the Japanese officials to deliver this message to Hull before their planes struck Hawaii, but it took the Japanese Embassy longer to decipher and type this response and the delay caused them to hand Hull this response as their planes were devastating the headquarters of the American navy in the Pacific. For the rest of his life, Hull was bothered that as he was negotiating for peace, the Japanese deceived him through many phony meetings, where they were only interested in pursuing war.  

Admiral Husband E. Kimmel and Lieutenant General Walter C. Short were the army and naval senior commanders that were responsible for the defense of Pearl Harbor. Short had 40 years of service under his belt, where he served with Marshall and was promoted by him to command the Department of Hawaii. Directly after this attack where Short was caught off guard, he retired from the service. When Kimmel saw the attack unfolding, a stray bullet forced him to fall to the ground. He realized that the Japanese were in the process of destroying the American military presence that he held the responsibility for protecting. With Pearl Harbor virtually defenseless, Kimmel eerily stated about almost being shot, “It would have been merciful had it killed me.” Both men were the scapegoats for “dereliction of duty” and their careers were terminated. Some 60 years later, Congress cleared Short and Kimmel’s names and stated that they were not solely to blame for 2,400 losses on Dec. 7, 1941.

Less than two weeks later, Kimmel was relieved of his command and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz ascended to the position of Commander in Chief. This historic officer was at the helm of many naval successes in the Pacific and he was warmly greeted by his wife who was pleased about his promotion. However, on Dec. 7, there was no joy, the fleet barely survived, and instead of searching for the Japanese carriers that caused this chaotic assault, his men were attempting to rescue their comrades who were trapped in sunken ships in and around Pearl Harbor. Nimitz could only respond to his wife, “all of the vessels are at the bottom.” On the USS Arizona alone, there were twenty-three sets of brothers that were serving together on this ship that were killed by the Japanese.  

The U.S. Navy did not have time or manpower to go after the Japanese naval forces at Pearl Harbor as they were trying to rescue their comrades.

To make matters worse for the U.S., the Japanese attacked the American strongholds in the islands of the Philippines, Wake, and Guam. For years, the Japanese, as a growing military power, resented the deterrence of the United States navy held as they sought control the Pacific and Asia. The Japanese leadership understood that if they did not sink the aircraft carriers and battleships at Pearl Harbor, they were unable to match the military and economic might of the U.S. For a year, the Japanese lived up to their strength as the “Rising Sun” showed no signs of being halted. They controlled a tremendous land and sea empire that stretched north into China. They took two Aleutian Islands from Alaska, reached in opposite directions towards Australia and Burma, and they pushed towards the island of Midway.  

Roosevelt was determined that the U.S. would fight in both the European and Pacific Theaters of Operation before the end of 1942. Immediately, FDR sought vengeance against the sneak attack that nearly destroyed the naval force at Pearl Harbor. While the “Doolittle Raid” did not hurt the Japanese war effort, it managed to show to this warring nation that America was able to quickly strike back. An aircraft carrier strike force sailed within four hundred miles of Japan and launched its bombers to hit their mainland. Fifteen out of the 16 American B-25 bombers crashed landed in China with a minimal casualties. And while this was a minimal raid, it was a psychological blow to the Japanese and it showed resilience to American citizens. For his efforts in leading and carrying out this assault, Dolittle was awarded the Medal of Honor by Roosevelt. 

American boys from the inner cities, the rural areas, and communities like that of the North Shore were quickly trained and deployed for war. Both Americans and British landed in Morocco and Algeria to briefly fight the Vichy French troops and oppose the Germans. In the Pacific, American ground forces landed at Guadalcanal to prevent the Japanese from building an air strip that would attack the shipping lanes to Australia and New Zealand. Since this past March, our country has been severely hurt by the terror of COVID-19, but let the sacrifices and resolve that was shown by the United States during and after Pearl Harbor prove to our current citizens that there are no challenges that this nation is unable to overcome. May we always remember our past, present, and future veterans and those front-line workers today that are engaged within the “health defense” of this nation.

Thank you for members of the Rocky Point History Honors Society for contributing to this story.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

Presidents Abraham Lincoln, left, and Franklin D. Roosevelt visit their troops during their respective wars. Photos from respective presidential libraries

By Rich Acritelli

“A nation that does not honor its heroes will not long endure.”

These words were stated by an American icon who guided this nation during one of the most tumultuous periods in our history. It was at this point on Veterans Day, 1864, that Lincoln won re-election against former commanding general of the Union military George B. McClellan.  For many months, Lincoln feared that he would not win a second term and that his military forces would have to gain a decisive victory against the South before he left office in March of 1865. The president agonized over his personal estimation that he would eventually lose to McClellan and that the nation would not be preserved. His eventual victory signaled a continuation of the major task of the Union government to defeat the Confederacy and have the country be united under one flag.  

Lincoln’s armies were led by the skill of General Ulysses S. Grant, who understood the importance of achieving military objectives towards the success of Lincoln being re-elected.  Unlike Robert E. Lee who did not connect the strategy of the Army of Northern Virginia towards leadership directives of Jefferson Davis, Grant directed that his forces had to win battles to persuade northern voters that Lincoln was making enough progress to win the war. Once Grant took over the authority of all Union forces in March of 1864, he directed the bloody fighting in Virginia that resulted in a deadly struggle between these two armies.

At the start of the Overland Campaign in May of 1864, Grant informed Lincoln that there was no going backward against the Confederates. Every effort was put forth to pressure the southern forces that precariously held onto fortifications that guarded Richmond and Petersburg. Although the southerners defeated many of the commanding leaders from the Army of the Potomac, Lincoln had a bulldog in Grant who was not intimidated by the multitude of southern victories that were won by Lee. 

Davis and Lee eagerly sought the political defeat of Lincoln, as they realized that if he gained a second term, this president would vigorously carry out the war until the North achieved victory. These key Confederate leaders worried about the lack of resources and the stretching of their own lines against the numerical strength of the northern soldiers.  And in Georgia, Sherman left behind Atlanta in his “March to the Sea,” where he captured Savannah by Christmas as a gift to Lincoln. With a vengeance, Sherman marched through the Carolina’s to link up with Grant’s army in Virginia. Grant’s unwillingness to bend against the Confederates and the political and military wisdom of Lincoln, signified the beginning of the end for the Confederacy in early November of 1864.

During World War II in Europe and at this moment in time (originally called Armistice Day), Allied armies quickly operated from Normandy to move eastward into the interior of France. That summer was an extremely hazardous moment for the Germans, as they were driven back into Poland on the Eastern Front, in the West, and when Paris was liberated by General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his coalition of armies. Even as Operation Market Garden was deemed a failure with a waste of resources and men, the Allies waged massive air drops into Belgium, the Netherlands, and near the German border. This pursuit from the Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea saw German military resistance almost collapse in this part of Europe that was held by the Nazis since the spring of 1940.  

Like that of Lincoln, President Franklin D. Roosevelt faced a re-election, but this was for his unprecedented fourth term. Many Americans counted on the smile of Roosevelt and his guidance during the harrowing moments of this war. Although Lincoln was a dominant Republican and Roosevelt was one of the most capable Democratic Presidents to hold office, these leaders shared many similarities. With six months left of fighting their respective wars, both men were exhausted from the daily rigors of leadership and they aged beyond their years. They asked their populations to keep sacrificing for the good of the war, grieved over losses, and they were determined to gain a victory that would change both the nation and the world.  

Both men are historic giants, but they were known for being major political figures within their states of Illinois and New York, respectively. They held secondary military positions, as Lincoln was a captain of his militia during the Black Hawk Indian War and Roosevelt was an Assistant Secretary of the Navy during World War I. To win their respective wars, Lincoln counted on the support of war time Democrats that served in the Union army as generals. When Roosevelt ran for re-election for his third term in 1940, he fully realized that America would eventually fight the Germans and Japanese. FDR asked for the support of noted Republicans Frank Knox as the Secretary of the Navy and Henry L. Stimson to command the War Department. 

These historic families sacrificed like others in this country as Lincoln’s son Robert was a captain within Grant’s headquarters staff. Jimmy Roosevelt, the eldest son of FDR, was decorated for dangerous combat operations against the Japanese, and he ended the war as a colonel. They were well-liked figures that saw Lincoln present colorful stories and Roosevelt always wore a smile on his face during tense moments. While they were busy running the war, both leaders saw the importance of visiting their soldiers. At the end of the Civil War, a tired Lincoln was urged by Grant to spend time with his headquarters and soldiers at City Point, Virginia. Lincoln rode his horse close to the front lines with Grant and enjoyed the company of his officers and soldiers. In North Africa, Roosevelt sat in a jeep with his brilliant smile and openly talked to Eisenhower and General George S. Patton. Even at the cusp of total victory, Lincoln was at the service of Grant in helping him at every turn to defeat the Confederacy and end slavery in this country. Roosevelt was driven to destroy fascism as his armies were poised to enter Germany and General Douglas MacArthur prepared to stage his return to the Philippines.  

When these leaders died, the American government, military, and civilians mourned over their loss. Citizens watched the trains that brought Lincoln to Springfield, Illinois and Roosevelt to Hyde Park, New York for their final burial. Americans from different walk’s life tried to gain a last glimpse of the coffins that were draped within an American flag.  May this nation always thank the men and women that served in the armed forces within every conflict and those historic political leaders that put our people first during exceedingly trying times.  

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College.

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Where can we turn when the dialogue from, or about, our presidents seems to fall short? Fortunately, we can look to the imperfect presidents of the past, whose ideas and inspiration have, for years, proved much more than “just words,” and whose notions about who — and what — we can or should be has helped provide a compass for the country.

James Garfield might be a good place to start: “We can not overestimate the fervent love of liberty, the intelligent courage and the sum of common sense with which our fathers made the great experiment of self-government.”

Garfield also proferred, “If wrinkles must be written on our brow, let them not be written on our heart. The spirit should never grow old.”

Thomas Jefferson suggested a way to deal with growing personal frustration: “When angry, count 10, before you speak; if very angry, a hundred.”

How about a few words from Rutherford B. Hayes who said, “He serves his party best who serves the country best.”

Martin Van Buren advised, “It’s easier to do a job right, than to explain why you didn’t.”

How about a quote from Honest Abe?

“My dream,” Lincoln said, “is of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last, best hope on Earth.”

Or this one: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

Here’s another Lincoln quote: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

Turning to the other side of the Civil War conflict that threatened to tear the nation apart, Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, said, “I tremble for my country when I hear of confidence expressed in me. I know too well my weakness, that our only hope is in God.”

John Quincy Adams’ inspirational suggestion was, “Try and fail, but don’t fail to try.”

Chester A. Arthur said, “Men may die, but the fabrics of our free institutions remain unshaken.”

Harry S. Truman indicated, “No government is perfect. One of the chief virtues of a democracy, however, is that its defects are always visible and under democratic processes can be pointed out and corrected.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking … is freedom.”

Describing a country whose ancestors came from so many other nations, Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”

FDR’s cousin Theodore Roosevelt said, “Believe you can and you’re halfway there.” Teddy also suggested, “Courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.”

John F. Kennedy, who saw his fair share of crises during a presidency cut short, said, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger — but recognize the opportunity.”

John Tyler offered these amusing and humbling words: “Here lies the body of my good horse, The General. For 20 years he bore me around the circuit of my practice, and in all that time he never made a blunder. Would that his master could say the same.”

William Howard Taft pointedly said, “Politics, when I am in it, makes me sick.”

An Eisenhower quote might be a fitting way to end: “America is best described by one word, freedom.”