This week, beginning Monday morning, the American Astronomical Society will meet in Honolulu, Hawaii. Vast numbers of scientific papers, press conferences, oral presentations, poster sessions, and commitee meetings will fill the next few days. No doubt some significant news will be made public, and I'll be here to bring it all to you. On the eve of the meeting, astronomers checked into hotels, stood around at a reception, and talked about exoplanets and other exciting things bubbling in the ether. Some of them also visited Pearl Harbor, site of the Japanese surprise attack of December 7, 1941, that crystallized United States' participation in World War II.
I had been to Pearl once before, a few years ago, and thoroughly explored all that can be seen. On Sunday afternoon, on the eve of Memorial Day, large crowds flocked to the harbor's USS Arizona Memorial to pay respects to World War II dead and recall the terrible Sunday decades ago that a few veterans, on hand on Sunday, lived through. The brief film one sees before boarding a Navy boat to be taken to the edge of Ford Island does a good job summarizing why the event occurred. As you ride the boat out to the moorings where Arizona stood, you get a clear image of where the Japanese fighters, torpedo planes, and dive bombers swooped in from the north over the mountains, turned sharply to the right, and unleashed near-total destruction along Battleship Row. In two waves, more than 300 planes attacked the U.S. naval forces for about an hour and a half.
About 2,400 Americans died that day, nearly half in the very instant Arizona's forward magazine exploded with a direct hit from a Japanese bomb. "Anyone who heard that sound, how loud it was, would never, ever forget it," said one veteran. Japan did not count on Pearl Harbor immediately uniting a previously divided America; nor did they count on missing American aircraft carriers that day (which were out at sea) and then losing four of their finest carriers a few months later at Midway — a setback the Empire would not recover from.
This Sunday marked a special day for hundreds of Americans who came to Pearl Harbor. It was a day to recall the past, the sacrifices many made, and ready oneself to again look to the future, to the stars, starting tomorrow morning.