Pearl Harbor Day Remarks

On Thursday, December 7, 2017, I was one of the speakers at the Greater Lowell Veterans Council Pearl Harbor Day remembrance ceremony held at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium. Also speaking were Mayor Ed Kennedy and State Representative Dave Nangle. The choir from the Butler School attended and sang a number of patriotic songs. Here are my remarks:

Pearl Harbor Memorial Bridge, Lowell, Mass. Carries East Merrimack St over the Concord River near Lowell Memorial Auditorium

Thanks to the Butler School choir for providing such fine entertainment this morning. Their presence here is historically appropriate, as well, because on Sunday, December 7, 1941, several thousand people crowded into this building to hear another group sing. It was a Moses Greeley Parker lecture. Admission was free, doors opened at 2:15 pm, and the event began at 3 pm. The performers that day were the Trapp Family Singers, the same group that is familiar to us from the movie, The Sound of Music.

The song list that day did not feature Edelweiss, Do-Re-Mi, or Climb Every Mountain; those songs would be written 17 years later by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Instead, the Trapp Family sang Austrian folk songs, some classical pieces by Bach, and a few traditional Christmas carols.

I’m sure the Trapps gave a wonderful performance, but when asked about that day, people who were there – including my mother, who was then 9 years old and had come with her family – don’t talk about the music, they talk about what came afterwards. That’s because as soon as the performance ended, everyone learned that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and that the United States was at war.

Now the fact that we went to war with Japan should not have been a complete surprise. Tensions between the two countries had been steadily rising for years, and things were particularly intense during the summer and fall of 1941. Just two days earlier, on Friday, December 5, 1941, giant headlines in the Lowell Sun read “US Jap War Decision Possible Within Hours.”

What did come as a huge surprise to us was where the Japanese attacked. Our country’s military planners and political leaders expected that a Japanese attack, if it should come, would be against American bases in the Philippines, which were much closer to Japan and within that country’s zone of military operations. They could not imagine an attack against Pearl Harbor which was 4000 miles from Japan.

Yet that is where the Japanese attacked. Using six of their aircraft carriers and the 400 aircraft they carried, the Japanese did what no one had ever done before; launch a major attack against a distant military base using carrier-based aircraft.

One reason the Japanese undertook such a bold and risky mission was because their naval commander, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, knew America well. He had spent two years studying at Harvard, had served as a Naval attaché in Washington, and had traveled extensively around the United States. He knew first hand of the industrial might of America.

Yamamoto convinced the leadership in Japan that the only way to win a war with America was to deliver a crushing knockout blow at the beginning and end the war within a year, two at the most. In any conflict longer than that, Yamamoto said the United States was sure to prevail.

The plan to attack Pearl Harbor was intended to be that knockout blow, and it nearly succeeded. In reports created right after the attack, Japanese pilots wrote that they knew they had achieved complete success because when they tuned their aircraft radios to the frequency of the commercial radio station in Honolulu, they heard popular music. If the Americans knew the attack was coming, the radio station would be off the air. The Japanese pilots used the radio waves from that station to guide them directly to their target.

The Japanese pilots wrote something else in those after action reports. They wrote of their amazement with how rapidly and accurately the Americans on the ground fought back, despite being completely surprised by the attack. The heavy anti-aircraft fire coming from the ground shot down a number of Japanese planes and disrupted the aim of the rest.

A number of men from Lowell were at Pearl Harbor that day, and they all fought back. Clifton Edwards, a 1936 graduate of Lowell High who lived on Merrill Street, was a 24 year old seamen on the USS Curtiss, which was one of the few ships to get underway that morning. The ship’s movement and the intense anti-aircraft fire coming from it attracted the attention of the Japanese and the Curtis was hit by several aerial bombs, killing 19 of its crew, including Clifton Edwards. The second Lowell man to die that day was 23 year old Arthur Boyle of 28 Ralph Street, A 1940 graduate of Lowell High, Private Boyle was an aviation mechanic stationed at Hickam Field, the main US Army air base in Hawaii. Boyle was killed while trying to get an American fighter plane airborne to counterattack the Japanese.

While the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was devastating, it was not the knockout blow intended. A big reason it was not was that despite a desperate and deadly situation, individual American service members used their own initiative and courage to fight back. Throughout the opening year of the war – the Japanese window of opportunity for victory, according to Admiral Yamamoto – the actions of thousands of men like Clifton Edwards and Arthur Boyle kept America in the fight, giving the country time to mobilize its superior resources, to go on the offensive, and to ultimately prevail.

5 Responses to Pearl Harbor Day Remarks

  1. David Daniel says:

    Thank you for the Pearl Harbor Day post. December 7, 1941 is one of those dates that (as with November 22, 1963) seems to recede into the mists of forgetfulness with each passing year, so that individual remembrances–along with more formal observances–are essential to keeping history alive. The small details, such as the Trapp family singers being in Lowell, give poignancy and particularity to your remarks. I remember some years ago Ed McMahon recollecting in the Sun about being in a downtown theater with friends as the announcement of the attack came, and soon thereafter joining the Marine Corps. My dad was a sailor, stationed aboard a destroyer at Pearl Harbor. He had gone ashore to church that morning and was later taken by a small shuttle boat out to rejoin his ship, which, like many of the smaller naval craft had been quickly ordered to sea to avoid added devastation. History becomes a sum total of small memories, of ordinary people doing ordinary, sometimes heroic, things. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Patti Lawrence says:

    Dear Mr. Howe, thank you for remembering Lowell’s 2 Heroes who lost their lives on December 7at Pearl Harbor. I still have the scrap book with all the clippings from the Lowell sun about that awful day, and articles published about that day years later. Pvt Arthur Boyle was my uncle and although I wasn’t even born until 17 years later, his siblings, one of which was my Dad, and our Grandparents made sure He was still a part of our lives. To this day we know him so well, we forget we never met him but yet still we knew him well, as do my Dad’s Grandchildren and great Grandchildren and his parents GrandChildren and their Great Great Grandchildren. There is so much that I grew up hearing about the agony these families of our 2 Heroes suffered, but thru it all they endured and conquered, because of their pride for the 2 brave Boys they raised, and love for the country they gave their lives to protect that terrible day. On December 7, 1972 when I was 16 yrs old, my Uncle Arthur brought my Grampa into Heaven to finally be with his son, 2 months later my uncle Arthur and my Grampa came and brought my nana with them. The fact that my grandfather, Phinney Boyle passed away on December 7, was no coincidence. I am sure one of the first things he did was hug his son and then shake hand of Clifton Edwards, and in case they weren’t aware, Phinney told them both how Proud their City and the people of Lowell Mass. Thank you, Mr Howe, for never letting our city forget our 2 Heroes. Respectfully, Patricia (Boyle) Lawrence.

  3. DickH says:

    Patti – Thank you for your comments and thank you for all that your family has done for Lowell and for the United States.