Young John F. Kennedy was playing touch football on the grounds of the Washington Monument when he heard the news. Every other American alive and aware on December 7, 1941, could tell you exactly where he was and what he was doing when he learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Thousands of Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy marched off to the Chapel that cold and clear Sunday morning to hear the pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. The guest preacher had made the two-hour trip from Washington by car. As he drove to Annapolis, however, he decided not to preach the sermon he had planned. Still unaware of the attack, as was the nation, the Scottish-born Rev. Peter Marshall instead determined to preach on an entirely different Scripture verse: James 4:14.
Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
The Academy Chapel is a beautiful and imposing structure, modeled on Pariss famous Hotel des Invalides. The pulpit is a rich mahogany, with carved figures of the Apostles standing tall. None of this mattered as the eloquent preacher honed his message and sent it to the hearts of his young hearers. Hundreds of the vital young men seated before him would remember that sermon all their lives.
Hundreds of others would carry it to a watery grave. In the Academys Memorial Hall is an engraved list of the names of all those alumni who died in the nations wars since its founding in 1845. The listing for World War II takes up more than 60% of the space for all the honored dead. That conflict, begun for America this day 69 years ago today, changed the whole world. President Franklin D. Roosevelt said it was a date which will live in infamy.
My family has worshiped in that same Chapel for 14 years. There, our daughter was married. There, we attend Christmas Eve and Easter services. We are a Navy family.
There, until very recently, the flags of the United States and the Brigade of Midshipmen were processed in solemn ceremony every Sunday morning.
My wifes friends grace our home with the warmth of good fellowship. Recently, Kathie brought eighteen ladies to her monthly craft time. This particular Wednesday, the women were making their own Christmas cards.
I steer a wide berth when there are that many ladies engaged in serious work and happy conversation. But now and then, I will dart out of my study and head for the coffeemaker in the kitchen. This particular time, I could not help noticing that among the eighteen women were two Japanese and two German wives. They and their husbands are respected members of the international community in Annapolis. Their husbands are instructors at the Academy. The affection for these foreign women, welcome guests in our home, is genuine.
What a little miracle that scene was. Peace on Earth, goodwill to men. Sixty-nine years ago, we were in a desperate war for survival with their countries. Now, they laugh and joke with us. And share the joys of Christmas in America.
These friendships are one of the blessings of peace. But it was a peace made possible only by Americas victory over Japanese militarism and Nazi cruelty. Former President George H.W. Bush came to the Academy several years ago to deliver a lecture. It was one of the best weve heard. He was the youngest naval aviator in history. He dropped out of Yale to volunteer for World War II. Shot down near Chichi Jima in the South Pacific, Bush described his desperate attempts to paddle his rubber boat out to seaeven as the waves were pushing him toward that Japanese-occupied island. I was crying and puking, sick with fear, Bush said. He had good reason to fear. We knew that captured American fliers were sometimes beheaded on that island. And their bodies eaten.
Yet, here was this forgiving man, describing how, as President of the United States, he had decided to attend the state funeral of Japans Emperor Hirohito. You cannot imagine the hatred we all felt for the Japanese in World War II, he told the Mids. We wanted to exterminate them all.
Bush went on to say the most underreported story of the second half of the Twentieth Century was the genuine reconciliation between the Japanese and American peoples.
He is right. And that reconciliation was only made possible by American strength and American resolve.
That strength is based, ultimately, on the truths of Holy Scripture, as Rev. Peter Marshall preached on that long-ago Sunday morning. This day lives in infamy, to be sure, yet it lives as well in memory. Our lives are a mist, but Gods Word lasts forever.