Heather McClenahan/Courtesy photo
BY LINDA HULL
Rotary Club of Los Alamos
On December 7, in recognition of the 80th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Heather McClenahan, former Executive Director of the Los Alamos Historical Society, spoke to members of the Rotary Club of Los Alamos via Zoom from her home in Las Cruces.
McClenahan began with a thought-provoking quote by Robert Citino, senior historian of the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy, “No moment in the history of the United States casts a longer shadow than Pearl Harbor.” Her presentation explained why.
In 1941 World War II was well underway in other parts of the world, but the U.S. had not yet entered the global conflict. However, triggered by events of December 7th of that year, a “date that will live in infamy,” as President Roosevelt said the following day in his Address to Congress Requesting a Declaration of War with Japan, the U.S. took a decisive course. On that quiet Sunday morning of the 7th, Pearl Harbor, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, about 10 miles west of Honolulu, had been bombed in a surprise military strike by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service, decimating the U.S. fleet and leaving over 2400 dead and over 1000 wounded. In a “forgotten attack,” McClenahan reminded the audience that the Japanese had undertaken a simultaneous attack on the Philippines.
The declaration of war quickly changed the course of history. It “rallied the U.S.,” as McClenahan stated, and “brought an end to the Great Depression as U.S. industries geared up for war.” It also “made the U.S. the superpower it was destined to be,” although she said the audience was “free to challenge this idea.”
McClenahan asserted that “The U.S. was not prepared for war; the outcome (for the Allies) was not inevitable.” McClenahan continued by observing, “What started at Pearl Harbor ended because of what happened in Los Alamos,” referring to the development of the atomic bomb. “It is important history to remember today because the bombing of Pearl Harbor fundamentally re-shaped the U.S. and the world.”
McClenahan also spoke about the trip she and her husband took to the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, which she remembers as “one of the most moving moments of my life.” There she and her husband visited the memorial to the Navy battleship The USS Arizona whose remains lie in about 40 feet of water with those of over 900 sailors. “Built in the 1910s, commissioned in 1916, and later transferred to the Pacific Fleet,” the ship was struck in its magazine by an armor-piercing bomb within the first few minutes of the attack and “exploded and sank, killing 1,177 officers and crewmen.” She continued, “Please remember it is a grave.” Even today, “oil still comes up from it.”
Also at Pearl Harbor, the McClenahans visited The USS Missouri, nicknamed Might Mo, the last battleship commissioned by the U.S. It is remembered as the ship, anchored in Tokyo Bay, upon which Imperial Japan officially signed its surrender, thus ending World War II. Although the Mighty Mo was not involved in the bombing at Pearl Harbor, she fought at Iwo Jima and Okinawa and shelled Japan. She became part of the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, under the U.S. Park National Park Service, in 1998.
In closing McClenahan offered another quote from historian Robert Citino, “While we should never reduce Pearl Harbor to cliché, our continued use of the metaphor is proof positive that our history matters, that shared memories are essential to tying Americans together as a people. Every time we remember Pearl Harbor, we recall the events of that day and the brave men who died there. But perhaps we remember something about who we are, too.”
McClenahan left Rotarians with these questions: Will we forget Pearl Harbor? Are those who forget history really doomed to repeat it? Will we be prepared?
To keep history alive and relevant, she also asked Rotarians to remember their own stories and the cumulative stories of those 240,000 remaining World War II veterans. Their ranks decrease by about 230 each day. In addition, McClenahan encouraged the support of the study and preservation of history, and visiting the Los Alamos Historical Museum, Pearl Harbor National Memorial, the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana and the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas.
Heather McClenahan is a native New Mexican and historian who raised her family in Los Alamos. She spent the most of her career with the Los Alamos Historical Society. She has
degrees in journalism and political science from Drake University and a Master’s in U.S. history from the University of South Florida. Upon an early retirement in 2019, she and husband Bob McClenahan began their long-awaited travels around the world only to be isolated in Panama by COVID-19. Upon returning to New Mexico, they purchased a home in Las Cruces because it was “the warmest place with ready access to green chile.” McClenahan maintains her interest in historical pursuits. She was recently appointed by the New Mexico Humanities Council as the state coordinator for New Mexico National History Day, one of her long-time passions. McClenahan and her husband have three grown children.
The Rotary Club of Los Alamos meets in person Tuesdays, 12:00-1:00, in the Community Room, Cottonwood on the Greens, at the golf course. A Zoom option is available by contacting Linda Hull, Rotary Club vice-president, 505-662-7950. Hull is also happy to provide information about the Club and its humanitarian service.