HONOLULU, Hawaii - With the approach of Memorial Day weekend we are reminded it is a time for many families to reflect upon the ultimate sacrifice made in the service of our nation by a relative or relatives.

Collectively as a nation, however, even after 73 years, no military engagement in our history causes us to reflect more than the Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan.

Launching the planes in two waves from an aircraft carrier-based attack fleet that had sailed undetected to within approximately 230 miles northwest of the island of Oahu, the first squadron of fighter bombers arrived from the east at 7:55 a.m. to begin the attack on the picturesque harbor on the south side of the island.

As expected by the Japanese high command when choosing a Sunday to carry out "Operation Z," they initially encountered a relaxed, totally unprepared force - from sailors going about routine duties to officers living off base finishing their breakfast - and the information was radioed back by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida with the message "Tora. Tora. Tora." ("Tiger. Tiger. Tiger.")

At 8:40 a.m., the second wave of planes began their attack, and by the time the carnage ended at 9:45 a.m., 2,335 U.S. military personnel were killed, 1,143 wounded; 68 civilians killed, 35 wounded; 65 Japanese killed and one captured. As devastating as the losses were, the carnage would have been greater had the Japanese decided to launch a third attack planned by Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, which the American forces expected.

Popular attraction

Today, Pearl Harbor is part of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, maintained by the National Park Service. Approximately 1.5 million visitors pass through the gates each year to view the pristine exhibits, which manage to balance the fine line between being a memorial and a tourist attraction.

Like at other national parks, a visitors center, which opened in 1980, sells souvenirs that range from shot glasses and T-shirts to books and DVDs. There is also a museum with artifacts, memorabilia, maps, scale-model ships, a timeline of events that led to war in the Pacific and a documentary film.

Unlike anywhere else, however, Pearl Harbor has the iconic USS Arizona Memorial - a 184-foot structure that spans the beam of the sunken USS Arizona at mid-ship slightly forward of the No. 3 gun turret. This memorial - the final resting place for the 1,177 crewmen who were killed when she took a direct hit to the forward magazine, exploded, listed and sank - is the No. 1 visited site in Hawaii.

Neither the Arizona nor the other seven battleships were the primary targets of the Japanese, but rather the three aircraft carriers of the Pacific Fleet - all of which were at sea, as was the battleship Colorado.

Seven of the battleships were literally "sitting ducks" as they were docked along "Battleship Row," with only the Nevada making a break for the open ocean, but beached itself after repeated hits so as not to sink and block the harbor entrance.

While all eight battleships were damaged, amazingly the Arizona and Oklahoma were the only two that were unable to be refurbished and returned to service. After sustaining repeated torpedo hits, the Oklahoma listed, turned upside down, sank and today still lies near the Arizona.

Visitors take a shuttle boat to the memorial and disembark into the entry room before proceeding to the assembly room - an open area designed for ceremonies and viewing of the aft portion of the sunken hull - and then onto the shrine room where the names of those killed on the Arizona are engraved on a marble wall.

When returning to the shuttle, they pass along the side of the assembly room that provides a view of the forward portion of the hull and the USS Missouri, which sits at anchor and is now a museum.

On calm days, or depending on the direction of the wind when approaching the Arizona Memorial, the stench of fuel oil seeping from the sunken hull can be detected. This oil is referred to as "black tears" and has spawned a bit of folklore in that it will continue until the last of the ship's survivors has his ashes interred with his shipmates, as has become practice.

Living history

While taking its place in history alongside such events as the Boston Massacre, the fall of the Alamo, the sinking of the USS Maine and the sinking of RMS Lusitania as linchpin events for war, the USS Arizona is unique. Clearly, she remains living history for both the members of the "greatest" generation and baby boomers who heard firsthand accounts of the sinking.

A memorial to honor those who died aboard the battleship was first suggested in 1943 during the height of the War in the Pacific, and in 1949 the Territory of Hawaii established the Pacific War Memorial Commission.

In 1950, Pacific Commander in Chief Adm. Arthur Radford ordered a flagpole erected over the sunken battleship, and on the ninth anniversary of the attack a commemorative plaque was placed at the base of the flagpole.

In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved creation of the memorial, which was completed in 1961 and dedicated in 1962. Construction was done with public funds appropriated by Congress, private donations and the proceeds of a concert by Elvis Presley at Pearl Harbor's Bloch Arena, March 25, 1961, which raised more than $50,000.

"America showed we are a vengeful nation by the way we reacted to the attack on Pearl Harbor and achieved victory in World War II," said Daniel Martinez, Pearl Harbor chief historian. "At the same time, we have since shown we are a forgiving nation, and that was never more evident than when without anyone here knowing about it a group of surviving Japanese pilots came to pay their respects.

Martinez said the pilots were prideful men who felt deep shame because at the time they had been told Japan had declared war on the United States and didn't realize it was a surprise attack. No one was sure how they would be greeted, but they felt it was their duty to honor those who had been killed in the attack.

"Much to their surprise, they were treated as honored guests, and that continued during following visits when Japanese and American survivors met," Martinez said. "One of the interesting things of that first meeting was that while Americans greet by hugging, that is not the custom of the Japanese, but when the Japanese were hugged by the American survivors both sides began to embrace."

Martinez, who has been at Pearl Harbor since 1985 after being transferred by the National Park Service from the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana, said the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States have an emotional parallel, but not a historical parallel.

In 1941, the United States was attacked by an organized government and knew its enemy, but that was not the case in 2001.

"We really didn't see an increase in visitors because of 9/11, but it didn't prevent people from coming here when many were afraid to fly, because the survivors of the Arizona came for their reunion that December," Martinez said.

The city of Honolulu paid to have family members of the NYPD and FDNY who were killed come here, he said.

"One can only look back at an event objectively with the passage of time and becoming detached from that event. In that respect we have come to look at the attack on Pearl Harbor in the perspective of history, as what we have is still a living history.

"There are still survivors of the attack that come here daily to meet with visitors and tell their story, but as we lose these survivors we are looking at the next generation of survivors. They are the civilians who witnessed the attack and also have a story to tell."

Because of that story there is no need for Memorial Day to give all Americans cause to honor the sacrifices made by our service personnel the day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt so aptly dubbed a "Day of Infamy."