Two days that will live in infamy

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— Anyone who has witnessed Japanese torpedo bombers, bent on mayhem, roaring past so close they could make out the pilots' facial features, isn't about to forget that jaw-dropping image. Alta Jay was reminded of it just last week.

All of us heard the stunning analogy 50 times in the past six days. In their struggle to assign some sense of scale to the immensity of America's agony, broadcast journalists, public officials and newspaper columnists all compared the horrific attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon to the attack, 60 years ago, on Pearl Harbor.

Most of the people who drew the analogy didn't have any firsthand knowledge on which to base their comparison. But it turns out they were right on target.

You can take Alta Jay's word for it she watched the raid on Pearl Harbor unfold through her parents' bedroom window.

"That's the first thing that came to my mind," Alta said last week from her San Diego-area home. "It was just like Pearl Harbor, because it happened on American soil, and it was a sneak attack."

Alta is a grandmother today who comes to Steamboat Springs a couple of times a year to visit her daughter and her family. But in 1941, she was a 15-year-old girl in love with Waikiki Beach.

Alta had moved to Oahu almost two years earlier with her parents, Clarence and Zona Hudelson. Clarence was a chief petty officer in the Navy. He was stationed on a light cruiser, the USS Raleigh.

Initially, the Hudelson family lived near Waikiki, but at Thanksgiving 1941 they moved to apartment buildings provided for families of enlisted men. Each of the square, two-story buildings in the complex contained four apartments.

The Hudelsons lived in one of the upstairs apartments, just a couple of blocks from Hickam Airfield and a half-mile from the main gate of Pearl Harbor naval base.

On the morning of Dec. 7, Clarence Hudelson had just returned from maneuvers. He and his teen-age daughter were sitting on the edge of her parents' bed, catching up on the events of the preceding week. Zona Hudelson had gone outside to hang diapers on the clothesline the Hudelsons had a 6-month-old baby.

Suddenly Zona burst into the house and cried out, "The Japanese are here, Clarence, the Japanese are here!"

"Oh, Zona," he replied, "they couldn't be."

He patiently explained that the planes his wife saw were only other units returning from war maneuvers.

Clarence Hudelson was badly mistaken.

"My Dad and I watched the bombers come," Alta recalled. "They flew by the window below the rooftops. We could see the pilots' faces."

The torpedo bombers had to make a low approach, barely 15 feet from the ground, to drop their deadly weapons on a flat trajectory.

As they approached the ships lined up at anchor in the harbor, the torpedo bombers literally flew between the apartment buildings.

Together, father and daughter watched the battleship Arizona explode in a column of fire.

Americans on the mainland had to wait more than a week before they could visit local movie theaters and watch newsreel footage of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Last week, Americans watched the horror unfold on live TV.

Alta survived Pearl Harbor (and Clarence survived the war, although his ship saw a great deal of combat). But the world in which Alta came of age was forever changed in ways she could have never anticipated.

There are some obvious dissimilarities between the events of Dec. 7, 1941, and those of Sept. 11, 2001. But I fear that one of the things they have in common is this: Your world, and my world, will never be the same.

Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published every Monday in Steamboat Today.

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