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Chaplain's Message on Pearl Harbor Day

Pearl Harbor Day is today.   W. Thomas Smith Jr. has an article about where some WWII vets  were on December 7th,  1941

Jacqueline, somewhere in Southwest Asia, sends this message for today:

December 7, 2005
Letter from a US Navy Chaplain in Bahrain on remembering Pearl Harbor

 by Chaplain Richard House, LT, USN

  “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”   

            Thus begins the speech by President Franklin Roosevelt to the Congress the day following the attack.  I invite you today to take a moment to recall the sacrifice of our comrades early one Sunday morning 64 years ago.

Of my generation each can recall where they were when President John F. Kennedy or the Reverend Martin Luther King were assassinated.  Younger generations of those in uniform know their location when the two planes struck the Twin Towers, another the Pentagon, and yet a fourth that landed in a field in Pennsylvania...   

Perhaps to many of you, Pearl Harbor is but a page from a history text, but those of my mother’s generation know exactly where they were on that Sunday.   Though perhaps not here in Bahrain, there are many in our country that have no doubt where they were on that fateful day, for they were there.  By these words I hope to honor those who still bear scars, both physical and emotional, along with their fallen comrades, and all who mourn their loss.

As a relatively new chaplain with only five years on active duty I sought out the advice of those senior to ask the question, “What should you say in such a memorial?”  I could share with you the details of the attack, the battle plan, and our response.  I could list the ships lost and those spared.  We could read the names of the 1,177 wounded.  We could toll the ship’s bell for the 2,403 killed that day. From Chaplain Corps history I could recall that nineteen chaplains were on duty in the vicinity of Pearl Harbor that day.  I could extol the courage and sacrifice of Chaplains Schmitt and Kirkpatrick, the two Navy Chaplains killed at Pearl Harbor.  We might also recognize those who survived the attack and gather together in memorials around the country today.

But today I would rather speak to that which might have brought our comrades to the place of making that supreme sacrifice. If I may, I would like to share with you the oath, or one similar, that each one of us who have worn the uniform of the United States, took at one time:

“I . . . solemnly swear or affirm that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter, so help me God.” 

Let’s look at this oath as we recall those we honor today.

“I . . . solemnly swear (or affirm)” There are precious few things in life that we hold as truly solemn.  While we would surely include family and loved ones as precious; it is often that things thought to be solemn are confined to places of worship: mosques, temples, synagogues, churches, or cathedrals.

Those who died and fought on December 7th, and all those who have served our country in uniform throughout our history, took an oath, raised their right hand and spoke these or similar words. They swore a solemn oath.  What can be more solemn that keeping one’s word!  They kept their word!  I ask you, what can be a more solemn gift than a life given for another?  They proved this beyond a shadow of a doubt!

“support and defend”  Those who died and fought that day did just that.  They supported and defended the Constitution of the United States and the freedoms expressed therein.  The surprise attack on that Sunday morning caught America, and our comrades, off guard.  We as a nation were not prepared.  They defended their shipmates, and their country with their blood and their very lives.  They offered support and defense to those alive on that day, as well as all of us not yet born.

“true faith and allegiance”  I looked up these three words in the dictionary, and among their definitions I found the following: steadfast, loyal, honest, just, ideal, essential, belief, trust, constant, duty, confidence, conviction, obligation, fidelity, devotion, and loyalty.

Were our comrades perfect?  No. Were they perfect examples of these ideals?  No.  By virtue of their actions, did they strive for these ideals?  Most definitely!  It is our hope that we might be able to attribute some of these to ourselves, and especially to those of us in uniform.  If we find ourselves in struggle as we strive for these ideals, we are then privileged to have the example of those whom we recall today for inspiration as we attempt to live them.

“so help me God”  We conclude this oath of service to our country with the powerful words, “so help me God.”  As a believer I strive to live my life according to sacred scripture, the teachings of my faith, and my trust in God.  I first took this oath as a teenager at the end of the Vietnam War.  I raised my hand again when in middle age I began service anew as a chaplain.  I now recognize that I did not fully understand these words thirty-three years ago.  While I may feel that I have a better sense of them now, no one truly knows how they will respond until they are called upon to do so.  If, and when we are called, it is only with the help of God that we will be truly able to attempt to live this oath to its fullest.

As this oath concludes with, “so help me God”, there is little doubt as to whom we will one-day answer.  God alone will judge us.   Our prayer is, that as we are called upon to put these ideals into action, that we will respond as well as those we honor and remember on this 64th Pearl Harbor Day.