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Pearl Harbor

The USS Shaw explodes during the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. Public domain photo

By Rich Acritelli

“We thought they were U.S. planes until we saw the big red sun on the wings, and they began to bomb and strafe, and there was that big red sun on their wings, and it was war.”

 — William Harvey, USS Sacramento, 1941

Eighty-two years ago on Dec. 7, the Empire of Japan struck the United States Armed Forces stationed at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

In the early morning hours, a massive Japanese naval and air presence was just 200 miles off the coast of these islands as military personnel and civilians awaited a leisurely Sunday. In an attack that lasted a little over two hours, an American population was thrust into a global conflict.

The surprise attack stunned government and military officials alike. Many Americans were shocked by this news, deluded by the inaccurate perception that the Japanese were not capable of hitting Hawaii with any robust force.

Instead, airmen, army forces and naval ships were reeling from continual aerial assaults by the Japanese Zero fighter aircraft that openly strafed American targets. From Japanese aircraft carriers, 40 torpedo planes, 103 level bombers, 131 dive bombers and 79 fighters opened up the war against American targets.

Once the smoke cleared, 2,403 American service members were killed, more than 1,000 injured and 19 American ships were crippled or destroyed.

The United States was fortunate that its three aircraft carriers were at sea. Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto initially stressed caution against this attack. He openly believed that if the American carriers were not hit, he could “run wild” for a year before the “sleeping giant awoke.”

Yamamoto, who traveled extensively around the United States, fully understood America’s economic and military potential, worrying that Japan would lose any long war against this country. The next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D) rallied a shaken nation, announcing that a “state of war” existed between the U.S. and Japan.

Americans from all walks of life entered the U.S. Armed Forces to avenge this national tragedy and oppose the rise of fascism. The Japanese and Germans faced limited military achievements, but they underestimated the American resolve to mobilize every facet of its government, economy and population. 

By 1945, America and its allies had achieved “complete” and “utter” victory first against Germany and then Japan.

A way to remember

Dec. 7, 1941, is a national day of remembrance of service for many past, present and future veterans. Recently, Thomas Semkow, a lifetime member of Rocky Point VFW Post 6249, died of cancer on Nov. 13, at 78. A soft-spoken man who was born in Manhattan and enjoyed every aspect of the Rocky Point VFW, Thomas was a Vietnam veteran. He was sent to Vietnam during the height of the fighting. Thomas had the unique experience of being a member of the Green Berets as a medic who worked closely with American and South Vietnamese forces who directly fought the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army.

Never one to speak about his experiences during the war, Thomas’ military achievements are on display at the VFW 6249 Suffolk County World War II and Military History Museum, opening Thursday, Dec. 7.

His death is a continual reminder of the older World War II, Korean and Vietnam war veterans who are dying on a daily basis. They sacrificed greatly to defend this nation. Let us remember now their valor during the Japanese attack.

Rich Acritelli is a history teacher at Rocky Point High School, adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College and curator of the VFW 6249 Suffolk County World War II and Military History Museum.

This week marks the 81st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, one of the darkest episodes in American history. Pixabay photo

“No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.” 

— President Franklin D. Roosevelt (D), Dec. 7, 1941

This week, 81 years ago, the United States was thrust into the global conflict of World War II.  

Isolationist tendencies had kept the country out of the war during its earliest years. Prominent Americans such as Charles Lindbergh and Joseph Kennedy Sr. widely considered the fight outside the United States’ strategic interests. 

It was an unsettling moment for the nation as Americans watched Britain and the Soviet Union on the brink of defeat from invading Nazi forces. Meanwhile, the Japanese moved against its neighbors from China to Indonesia, controlling significant parts of the Pacific and Asia. 

‘A date which will live in infamy’

Within the early morning of Dec. 7, 1941, American ships on patrol outside Hawaii discovered the periscopes of Japanese submarines. Five of these underwater vessels were stationed near Pearl Harbor, ready to pounce upon American ships attempting to flee the assault. At the same time, Japanese planes departed from aircraft carriers that were 275 miles north of Hawaii. 

The government and military never feared an attack by the Japanese against its army and naval bases in Hawaii. They feared a possible assault against the Philippines but never believed Pearl Harbor was a target.

Across this country, from the North Shore of Long Island to Hawaii, American citizens were awakened by the horrifying sounds of news reports of the assault. The Japanese rising sun logo was seen on high-level bombers and torpedo planes that swarmed over the morning skies of this island paradise.  

Within moments, a wave of 360 enemy fighter planes produced staggering losses on the American side: Five sunken battleships, three destroyers and almost 200 planes were hit from the air. As the Japanese pulled back after this assault, they understood their plans were not fully achieved. Three American aircraft carriers, untouched by the Japanese, would hold down the fort as America rebuilt its Pacific fleet.

Awakening a sleeping giant

American service members scrambled to survive the aerial onslaught. The attack killed 2,403 U.S. personnel, including 68 civilians. The government later discovered that 40 of these deaths were residents of New York. All of this was overwhelming for the stunned American people, stung by this attack and unprepared for this global war effort. 

A relieved British prime minister, Winston Churchill, stated that the American partnership in World War II was the ultimate factor in achieving a two-front victory. The Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor would push 16 million Americans to enlist in the armed forces over the following four years, putting the world back on a path to peace.

In the months after the Pearl Harbor attack, Japan gained one of the largest territorial empires in world history. The island nation’s conquests stretched from the Alaskan Aleutian Islands, toward Australia, into China, through several Pacific island nations and to the doorstep of India. 

This empire would quickly unravel, thanks to American efforts in the ensuing years. A three-year “island hopping” campaign would eventually bring massive American military power onto Japan’s home islands.

From 1943-45, Japan absorbed constant blows from air, sea and land, pushing this military regime back into its own territory. The war ended after President Harry S. Truman (D) authorized the use of the atomic bomb, obliterating the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Connecting past to present

For decades after Pearl Harbor, there were groups of veteran survivors of this surprise attack that once numbered 18,000 nationally and 70,000 around the world who could recall this tragic date. Today, fewer than 1,500 Pearl Harbor survivors remain.  

Moreover, less than 240,000 World War II veterans are still living. The “greatest generation” passes away at a rate of 234 people daily, according to the VA.

The United States has been pivotal in thwarting Russia’s attempts to overrun Ukraine. Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, had comprehensive plans to conquer Ukraine and then move against his neighbors. 

While the Ukrainians deserve credit for carrying out a reversal of fortune against Russian aggression, they have gained tremendous military, economic and political aid from the United States.  

As we reflect upon the moments after the attack on Pearl Harbor, we must remember that America has adversaries around the globe. The American response following Pearl Harbor should remind Putin never to underestimate the resolve of the American people, its leadership or its mission to combat tyranny around the globe.  

Friends and foes should always understand the historical examples of strength the United States illustrated during that dire moment in our national history. 

Remember to thank veterans for their services. Their contributions before and after Pearl Harbor have continually promoted the cause of freedom and security throughout the world.

Rich Acritelli is a history teacher at Rocky Point High School and adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College. Written in conjunction with Manny Watkins, Matt Liselli, Jake Donovan, Evan Donovan, Colin Singh, Simone Carmody and members of the high school’s History Honor Society.

Community members and elected officials during the Pearl Harbor Remembrance Ceremony in Port Jefferson Dec. 4. Photo from Kara Hahn

People gathered in Port Jefferson early Sunday morning to remember and pay tribute to the fallen on the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. 

On Dec. 4, members from American Legion Wilson Ritch Post 432 of Port Jefferson Station joined elected officials including village trustee Bruce Miller, state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket), Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) and Town of Brookhaven Councilman Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook) nearly eight decades to the date of one of the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

Each year on or around the anniversary of the day, ceremonies are held across the United States to honor all those who lost their lives when the U.S. Naval Base in Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. 

More than 3,500 Americans lost their lives or were wounded on that solemn day.

At the monuments for all American wars, wreaths were laid by American Legion Posts 1941, 417, Setauket VFW Post 3054 and the Ward Melville H.S. Patriot League Club.

‘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.

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The memorial sits above the USS Arizona, a sunken battleship, in Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. File photo

There are moments in American history that change the course of our democracy, and our lives. Several have come out of a clear blue morning sky.

Dec. 7, 1941 in Hawaii began with just such a morning..

But it was not just “a date that will live in infamy,” in the words of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (D), which he used to begin a speech to Congress and the American people the day after the surprise bombing on the naval base at Pearl Harbor. It was also a day that marked a major transition for the United States of America.

“I think December 7, 1941, is perhaps the most important day in American history,” Paul Sparrow, director of the FDR Library in Hyde Park said in an interview aired on CBS Sunday Morning television last weekend. “It is the transition day when we shifted from being an isolationist nation to being a global superpower.”

Roosevelt initially did his best to keep the country out of World War II. The Great Depression had taken a toll on the American people, and the memory of the destruction and lives lost in World War I still lingered.

When faced with the mass destruction that took place at Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt knew he had to make a swift and decisive response to an attack he called “unprovoked and dastardly.”

Roosevelt’s rallying cry was met with an immediate response from a unified and committed nation. America retooled, fought and took on a leadership role in the world it has maintained ever since.

Seventy-five years later, we might be experiencing another total policy realignment. Will the new administration, with its America-first doctrine, lead us back to pre-Pearl Harbor isolationism? One of the most important parts of American tradition since 1941 is our willingness to lend a hand to other countries and support them. Though it remains to be seen what values our new commander in chief will maintain, we must not forget our history.

Americans lost on Pearl Harbor are honored during a previous remembrance in Port Jeff. File photo

By Rich Acritelli

“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with terrible resolve.”

Japanese Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku, the architect of the attacks on Pearl Harbor 75 years ago, supposedly uttered these words as he assessed the immediate aftermath of Dec. 7, 1941. Up until Japan attacked, most Americans still subscribed to the popular sentiment of remaining out of the conflict, inspired by the words of Charles Lindbergh — “America first.” The America First Committee openly resented any notion that the United States should prepare for war. Even the first peacetime draft conducted in 1940 that expanded the military forces received stiff anti-war congressional opposition. While German tanks easily invaded France and later pushed through the Soviet Union, officers like Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar N. Bradley and George S. Patton still saw the cavalry play a major role within the mobility of the Army. All of this changed when Japanese fighter planes swarmed into Hawaii and attacked the air, naval and Army bases that manned the “jewel” of our forces in the Pacific Ocean.

When word of the attack spread to Washington, D.C., Secretary of State Cordell Hull was in the midst of negotiating with his Japanese counterpart. After a couple of choice words for the diplomat, the nation was rapidly placed on track for war. Within seconds, Americans were on lines blocks long to enter the service. President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed the nation with his “Day of Infamy” speech that was adopted as a rallying cry by American citizens to defeat the Axis powers. Unlike the political gridlock seen today, Roosevelt’s words were accepted without reservation, and supporters and opponents of the president’s New Deal listened to the beloved leader. The “sleeping giant” of productivity, strength and endurance was awakened to defeat a global enemy. Prominent baseball players like Yogi Berra, Bob Feller, Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg and Yankee Manager Ralph Houk hung up their uniforms during the prime of their careers to support the war effort. By the end of 1942, the size of the U.S. armed forces had doubled from the previous year. The enthusiasm could be traced to a commitment to avenge Pearl Harbor and defeat Hitler and the Nazis.

Americans today do not realize how close the Allies came to losing the war. Although the U.S. government was fully committed to fighting and helping its allies, America had a steep learning curve in teaching its young men the ways of modern warfare. The Japanese crippled America’s naval forces and Hitler looked unstoppable in Europe, but Roosevelt promised armed forces would be fighting the enemy in the Pacific and in North Africa before the close of 1942.  Americans were drafted so quickly into the military that there were not enough uniforms, weapons, tanks or trucks for them to utilize for their training. Longtime Wading River resident Michael O’Shea, who passed away in 2009, was a navigator in a B-17 Flying Fortress and experienced the earliest aspects of the war efforts.

The New York City kid watched Yankee games and attended Stuyvesant High School. Like other young men, O’Shea was horrified by the attack on Pearl Harbor and wanted to forgo his senior year to enter the military. His parents were adamant that he finish high school before enlisting. As a young recruit into the Army Air Force, O’Shea for a brief time was stationed in Atlantic City, N.J. He was not issued a uniform, did not have many knowledgeable instructors, and the lack of heat in the military housing made people sick. The local resident flew 24 combat missions and had the rare experience of being shot down twice over Europe. He was later imprisoned in Stalag Luft III, the same camp depicted in the film “The Great Escape.”  In the spring of 1945, Patton’s Third Army liberated O’Shea. He was present to see the noted armored general speak to all of the freed Americans. O’Shea was a good friend to Rocky Point High School, where he was a proud representative of the “Greatest Generation” and spoke about his crusade against totalitarian powers.

It was 75 years ago that America was propelled into a war it did not choose, but the people worked together and completely sacrificed for the safety and security of a thankful nation. Citizens like O’Shea, without hesitation, risked their lives for the well-being of the country. On this Pearl Harbor anniversary, may we never forget those men and women who were lost and wounded in the defense of this nation and continue to do so today at home and abroad.

Joseph Lalota of the Rocky Point History Honor Society contributed 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.

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Gen. George C. Marshall photo in the public domain

By Rich Acritelli

Gen. George C. Marshall photo in the public domain
Gen. George C. Marshall photo in the public domain

It was 74 years ago that the Japanese attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, spurring the nation’s entry into World War II. At the helm of the American military on that deadly day was Gen. George C. Marshall, and it was up to this outspoken man to take a military of 175,000 — which was ranked 17th out of all the industrialized powers — and turn the troops into a tremendous force of 10.4 million to defeat Germany and Japan.

From the moment he entered the Army in 1902, Marshall excelled at every task assigned to him. Unlike many of the West Point officers he commanded during World War II, he graduated from the Virginia Military Institute. His peers thought Marshall’s quiet and firm manner suited him for vital positions of military responsibility, and he held several different jobs in the Army, served in the Philippines and graduated first from the Army staff college in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

During the United States’ earliest moments in France in World War I, Marshall had a famous encounter with American Expeditionary Forces Commander Gen. John J. Pershing. When, upon finding the Army was not prepared for the burden of warfare on the Western Front, Pershing criticized his officers for not doing enough training, Marshall told Pershing that he did not understand the problems his soldiers faced daily and they were doing the best that could be expected of them. At first, Marshall believed he’d be sent home in disgrace; instead Pershing respected his honesty and clarity and eventually made him a main planner of American war operations against the Germans.

Years later, in the late 1930s, Marshall showed his leadership again when he sat in on a meeting with then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt and influential members of both his cabinet and the military. When Roosevelt outlined a plan of adding planes to the Army Air Forces but virtually no other resources to the Army, all of the leaders remained quiet or supported the president. Marshall, on the other hand, angered Roosevelt by vehemently disagreeing with him. But a year later, Marshall, who was a junior to many other officers, was promoted to Army chief of staff.

‘We must have the very best leadership we can possibly give these men and we’ve stopped at nothing to produce that leadership.’
— Gen. George C. Marshall, World War II Army Chief of Staff

Knowing war was a young man’s game, Marshall reassigned, fired or retired older officers who he knew were not able to fight a modern war. One of his most important choices was making one lieutenant colonel, Dwight D. Eisenhower, into an important member of his staff. While he never directly served with this officer, he was constantly informed that Eisenhower was one of the most well-rounded leaders in the military. He saw Eisenhower as a capable officer only interested in completing his duty. Marshall also elevated Gen. Omar N. Bradley to command the ground forces in Europe from D-Day to Germany’s surrender in 1945. It was Marshall’s manner not to dwell on the personal characteristics of his key leaders. This was the case with the erratic but brilliant combat fighter Gen. George S. Patton. Marshall stood by Patton throughout some of his troubles due to the strong belief that Patton would continually earn battlefield victories against the enemy.

From the time he became Army chief of staff, Marshall was determined to prepare his nation for the rigors of war. He drafted, trained, equipped and oversaw the total war efforts of the United States to defeat fascism, conducting all of those efforts in a professional manner, not seeking any credit for his massive contributions in the defense of his country. Marshall should be credited, however, with establishing a new army, command structure and strategy to conduct military operations against Germany and Japan. In a short period of time, he helped the United States attain a victory in an important war.

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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Long Island residents hold a rally to call for justice for crime victims in the Huntington area, most of them Hispanic. File photo by Rohma Abbas

By Rich Acritelli

Our nation has lately been rocked by protests that are springing up around the country in response to perceived unequal treatment, mostly at the hands of law enforcement. But these sorts of movements are nothing new — Americans of all colors and creeds have a history of protesting the government and bringing about positive change.

Since the first European explorers and settlers made their way to this continent, Native Americans have experienced some of the greatest hardships. While there are some positive stories in American history, like that of Sioux runner Billy Mills winning the gold medal in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics for the 10,000-meter race, such stories were rare. The reservation system was built on poverty and has historically had high rates of suicide, depression, alcoholism and drug abuse. During the 1970s, major tribal groups banded together to protest for enhanced rights from the government. From briefly occupying Alcatraz Island in San Francisco to taking over the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C., it was their goal to work with the government to better the lives of Native Americans.

After Japan’s Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, the fearful U.S. government removed Japanese-Americans from their daily lives on the West Coast. Loyal people who paid taxes, were productive citizens and had their children learn about the Constitution were viewed as enemy combatants. More than 110,000 citizens were forced into internment camps from California to Arkansas. From 1942 to 1946, the Japanese were imprisoned and had all of their rights stripped from them. Ironically, some of the most valiant U.S. soldiers who had served in the bloody fighting in Italy’s mountainous terrain during World War II were Japanese-Americans. With their loved ones imprisoned at home, the soldiers were highly decorated and even wounded fighting against the Nazis.

But unlike other historic groups that fought back against injustice, the Japanese Americans did not mount any movement of criticism against their internment, and there was no public or political sympathy for them. It was some 40 years later when Congress finally listened to several weeks of testimony that described the horrors of internment. In 1988, the government formally apologized for the wrongdoing and compensated affected citizens with reparations.

Once World War II ended, black soldiers who defended their country arrived home to a government that was still unwilling to fully grant equal rights to them. Some African Americans who fought with distinction in the European and Pacific theaters were lynched in their uniforms when they returned home, a report that sickened President Harry S. Truman. In 1948, he desegregated the armed forces. But racism was not over — since the end of the Civil War, black citizens had to contend with unfair treatment, such as  poll taxes to keep them from voting and the resentment and violence of the Ku Klux Klan. Black Americans responded fully during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, including with the civil disobedience under Martin Luther King Jr.

As a young man, Cesar Chavez realized that massive inequalities plagued the Latino pickers in the California fields. After spending two years in the military, Chavez began his life’s mission to help the migrant workers, who had little voice in their society. His earliest efforts of aiding others were to ensure that Hispanic people had support dealing with police discrimination, violence, tax problems and immigration issues. Chavez’s social work was also geared toward gaining respect from the California government to help the thousands of workers who strenuously labored in the fields. He extensively traveled in that state to gauge the needs of the workers. During the 1960s, his labor movement reached the impoverished vegetable and fruit pickers. Through nonviolent protests, Chavez and his followers asked Americans not to buy the products that they were harvesting in order to put pressure on the large businesses and farms to be fairer with their wages and labor practices. At various points during the movement, Chavez fasted several times to bring attention to the economic, social and political needs of the workers and citizens he represented. By the 1970s, the pickers’ movement achieved success, with many of the farmhands gaining union contracts. The United Farm Workers Union earned the right to collectively bargain.

It is an American right to protest unfair treatment at the hands of the local, state and federal government. While many inequalities still exist in our society, past movements have demonstrated that peaceful protests for change do work. Change has and always will come to this nation, but it cannot be positive if won through violence against people or property.

Rich Acritelli is a social studies teacher at Rocky Point High School and an adjunct professor of American history at Suffolk County Community College. He was a staff sergeant in the New York Air National Guard 106th Rescue Wing in Westhampton Beach.