Remembering a quiet Sunday

It was the Greatest Generation's 9/11.

Adults and children old enough to remember can tell you where they were when they heard the news of the Japanese bombing of the United States naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941.

Then and today, it was a quiet Sunday morning.

The number of sailors, soldiers and Marines who survived the surprise attack at dawn that killed 2,400 people -- 900 are still buried in the harbor with the USS Arizona -- is dwindling now. A 2013 estimate put the number at 2,500 to 3,000, so today there may be 2,000 such souls left and maybe less than a handful in the tri-state area.

The act precipitated the country's entry in World War II just as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, prompted the United States to answer the war on terrorism that extremist Islamist groups had begun.

Author Studs Turkel called the former conflict, the inevitability of which followed the attack 73 years ago today, "The Good War."

War is never good, but the author's title no doubt referred to World War II's seeming legitimacy, the way the country pulled and stayed together, and its tidy wind-up in less than four years of U.S. involvement.

The Rev. Doug Fairbanks, senior minister of First-Centenary United Methodist Church, says no one who has been involved in war wants to see it repeated.

The Chattanooga native grew up with a father who saw service during World War II in the Merchant Marines, served in Vietnam himself and has pastored during the decade-long war on terror.

"When you see what you see, when you see what it does to people," says Fairbanks, who was attached to the 25th Medical Battalion, "you think, 'Why would anybody want to do that?'"

On the other hand, he says, he is realistic.

"I have hope that mankind finds a different way to settle its differences," Fairbanks says, "but we're dealing with mankind. Theologians would say we have a bent toward sin. So until we're willing to lay down our arms to take care of things," war will continue.

Throughout history, he says, "one part wants to step on another part of humanity." The same is true today with groups like ISIS that harbor "archaic religious ideas." The Middle East, he says, seems to have a "cyclical vindictiveness," a need to "constantly create" unease among its peoples.

In the lead up to and during World War II, 20th-century theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to understand that evil was real and present, Fairbanks says.

"You have to stand up against evil," he says.

Between the 2,402 who perished at Pearl Harbor and the 2,977 victims of 9/11, the United States lost 36,516 in the Korean War and 58,209 in Vietnam, plus smaller numbers in other skirmishes and more than 6,000 in the war on terror since.

"The only thing we learn from history," Fairbanks says a philosophy and religion teacher told his class while he was an undergraduate student at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, "is that we don't learn from history."

The tragedy on top of the tragedy of war, he adds, is the universe has all it needs to house, feed and clothe each of its inhabitants. Minus war, minus the "complexity that manifests itself as evil," such could get done.

Today, those people who lived through Pearl Harbor -- those serving at the naval base are at least in their 90s and those who remember hearing the news at least in their 80s -- will mark what is officially called Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.

There, 74 years ago on the island of Oahu, 1,178 additional people were injured, four Navy battleships sunk and four more damaged, three cruisers, three destroyers and one minelayer sunk or damaged, and 347 aircraft destroyed or damaged.

Here, an 18-year-old Central High School student named Luther Masingill -- who died in October after more than 70 years on the air -- had just finished reading a local pastor's radio announcements on WDEF-AM radio when the bells on the wire service machine began dinging repeatedly, signaling a significant event.

He tore the emerging sheet from the machine, he told Times Free Press reporter Barry Courter several years ago, then walked back down the hall of the Volunteer Building headquarters of WDEF-AM radio station, sat in front of the microphone and read the news.

"The Japanese have attacked the island, our military installation in Oahu, known also as Pearl Harbor," Masingill said.

"It became evident," he said later, "it was the big story not only of that day but the whole year, the whole century."