By Rear Adm. Fritz Roegge, Commander, Submarine Force U.S. Pacific Fleet
Editor’s note: Rear Adm. Roegge was the keynote speaker at the WWII-end Missouri ceremony on Friday, September 2nd. In his speech, he reflected on the lasting impression the war made on Pearl Harbor and the Navy’s major contributions in the victory. Below is an excerpt from his speech.
Here, in Pearl Harbor, and onboard the USS Missouri, we have a singular vantage point from which we are able to survey visceral reminders of the complete cycle of the Second World War: its opening salvo, the seeds of eventual victory, and finally, the war’s conclusion.
First, reminders of the start of the war surround us. The most vivid and perhaps the most painful of these sits just forward of USS Missouri – the USS Arizona memorial which commemorates the nearly 1,200 Sailors and Marines who lost their lives on board on that day that lives in infamy.
That’s about half of all the fatalities. But all eight of the battleships that comprised battleship row were moored right along here, remembered by these white caissons in the harbor, and reminding us not only of their own Sailors’ lives lost, but of the nearly 2,400 men, women, children, service members, and civilians, who lost their lives that day.
On that Sunday morning, as bombs exploded, Sailors ran to their battle stations, and their families ran to shelter. For families then living here on Ford Island, their bomb shelter was also the basement of the home of Rear Admiral Patrick Ballinger, then Commander of Patrol Wing Two on Ford Island. That basement was originally a U.S. Army coastal artillery battery from the First World War, so its eight foot thick concrete walls and ceilings were the most secure place on Ford Island.
As survivors and casualties were brought ashore, that basement also became the doctor’s triage clinic: patients lay on mattresses scavenged from Ford Island homes, and were dressed and bandaged with articles of clothing from the residents.
Although the attack on Pearl Harbor was horrific, it did not prevent America’s Navy from prevailing. That’s because, as terrible and consequential as that day was, three significant targets remained intact: the fuel tanks, the Pearl Harbor Shipyard, and the Submarine Base.
The many fuel tanks that supply our ships were left unharmed. Admiral Chester Nimitz observed that had these tanks and their four million barrels of fuel been struck, it would have taken two years to replenish our supply and the fleet would not have been able to prosecute the war across the vast, vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean.
Additionally, though 12 ships were sunk and nine damaged, the Pearl Harbor Shipyard was left largely untouched. The Navy’s No Ka Oi shipyard prevailed. As a result, within three months, most of the smaller ships and the three damaged battleships were either returned to service, or refloated pending final repairs. Even three of the sunken battleships – Nevada, California, and West Virginia – returned to the war fight after 12 to 18 months, thanks to the men and women of the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and other shipyards around our nation.
Lastly, because our submarines were not struck, they were able to begin war patrols that carried the battle across the Pacific and into Japanese home waters while the battle fleet was repaired. Our submariners did their deadly business very well – although submarines were only two per cent of our Navy, they sank 60% of all Japanese ships sunk during the war. But submariners paid the heavy price of the highest rate of casualties of any branch of service in the war.
Admiral Chester Nimitz recognized this in his remarks after the war: “When I assumed command of the Pacific Fleet on 31 December 1941, our submarines were already operating against the enemy, the only units of the fleet that could come to grips with the Japanese for months to come. It was to the submarine force that I looked to carry the load. It is to the everlasting honor and glory of our submarine personnel that they never failed us in our days of great peril.”
And so, only six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States defeated Japan in one of the most decisive naval battles of World War Two, the Battle of Midway, which along with other great battles of 1942, turned the tide of the war.
But there is a final element, the element that was probably most consequential to winning the war. That is, of course, all of you: the American people. There are veterans among you whose service has directly contributed to winning our nation’s wars and preserving the peace. Men and women reached beyond themselves and pushed their shipmates and machines beyond their limits. Some historians have said we had no right to win. Yet we did.
General Patton once said, “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of men who follow and of the man who leads that gains the victory.”
On September 2nd 1945, at about 0900, great men came together to sign the peace treaty that ended the war. The ceremony lasted 23 minutes and was broadcast around the world.
That ceremony marked both a beginning and an end. As an end, it marked that the war was over, and that the war had been won. But it also marked the beginning of the perhaps even more important task: how to win the peace.
As a result of having won the peace, the United States of America and our former adversary of Japan are now close friends, partners, and allies – committed to each other’s success, to each other’s defense, and to promoting freedom and democracy throughout the region.
As we turn and look at a troublingly familiar setting in the Pacific, we have World War Two and our continuing relationship with our allied nations, as well as a strong partnership with Japan, as our markers to serve as a strong example of who we are, and why we exist, so that well into the future, Americans will continue to reflect the sacrifices made by great Americans, and understand why they are timelessly cherished, generation after generation.
I’d like to end with another quote from seventy years ago, delivered on the USS Missouri, from a decorated war general, Douglas MacArthur:
“Today the guns are silent a great tragedy has ended a great victory has been won…we have known the bitterness of defeat and the exultation of triumph and from both we have learned there can be no turning back. We must go forward to preserve in peace what we won in war.”