Pearl Harbor survivor William Muehleib (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called it "a date that will live in infamy." But more than 70 years after Japanese war planes bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, pulling the country into World War II, do Americans still think of December 7th that way?
They should, and it seems that they do, said Carlton Kramer, vice president of marketing for Pacific Historic Parks. The USS Arizona Memorial in Honolulu remains the largest tourist attraction in Hawaii, with attendance that has steadily grown over the last five years.
"It's a day that changed the Pacific forever," said Kramer, whose organization supports the National Park Service in maintaining the memorial. "It was a surprise attack and serves as a reminder that we need to be prepared at all times."
But there are still concerns that a younger generation growing up in the shadow of 9/11 might not realize the event's significance. In 1991, as the 50th anniversary of the attack loomed, the Atlantic's James Fallows, who was living in Japan at the time, noted how the Japanese seemed more aware of the day than the Americans he knew.
"Within the past two years the news media, ever alert to anniversaries, have invited the United States to take a look at Vietnam fifteen years after the fall of Saigon, at the space program twenty years after men first walked on the moon, and at Germany fifty years after Hitler rolled into Poland. This month we'll look back at Japan — with magazine features, a speech by President George Bush at Pearl Harbor, and a commemorative postage stamp — and then we'll move on to something else," Fallows wrote. "Why should so many Japanese be counting the days until the anniversary, while so few Americans seem to have given it a thought?"
Two years ago, the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association disbanded, conceding to, as the New York Times noted, "the reality of time –– of age, of deteriorating health and death." Some survivors worried that "the event that defined their lives will soon be just another chapter in a history book, with no one left to go to schools and Rotary Club luncheons to offer a firsthand testimony of that day."
The same article noted one survivor's experience speaking at an elementary school and being introduced to the teacher and his students, "(H)e said, ‘Mr. Kerr will be talking about Pearl Harbor,’ ” said Mr. Kerr. “And one of these little girls said, ‘Pearl Harbor? Who is she?’ . . . Can you imagine?”
For men like Kerr, Dec. 7, 1941 shaped their entire lives. On that morning, hundreds of Japanese fighter planes attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. More than 2,400 U.S. servicemen and civilians were killed. About 1,150 of those killed were serving on the U.S.S. Arizona, a battleship that was bombed, exploded and sank.
The attack was immediately denounced by President Roosevelt. The next day, the United States declared war on Japan. "Remember Pearl Harbor!" was a rallying cry during the entire conflict.
The USS Arizona Memorial, built over the sunken wreckage, was dedicated in 1962 as a lasting tribute to all who lost their lives that day. For years, Pearl Harbor survivors gathered here to mark that solemn anniversary. Some of those survivors have had their ashes interred at the site after their deaths.
In 2010, just as the Survivors Association was disbanding, the National Park Service unveiled a $58 million, state-of-the-art, expanded visitor center to make Dec. 7 more relatable for younger people. As Hawaii magazine noted at the time, the "fastest-growing visitor age group is no longer from the Greatest Generation, which experienced the World War II era first-hand, or the Baby Boomers that followed. It's Gen X and Gen Y visitors with more distant connections to the war."
The USS Arizona Memorial (AP Photo/Marco Garcia)
“ 'Someone visiting today who is, say, age 24 knows that the Arizona Memorial is important. But they don’t necessarily understand why,' says monument chief of interpretation Eileen Martinez. 'The great challenge for the future is making sure visitors leave understanding why this place is important, because as we move further away from that moment in time, we understand less and less.' "
The monument's exhibits not only document that single day but also present the Hiroshima atom bomb attack and reconciliation after the war. Life magazine reported that the expanded center allowed focus to shift from engagement to peace. Similarly, the Honolulu Star Advertiser quoted Brad Wallis, president and chief executive officer of Pacific Historic Parks, as noting in 2012,"The meaning of the memorial now goes beyond (Pearl Harbor) remembrance. It has become an opportunity for reflection on life and death, war and peace."
Kramer, of Pacific Historic Parks, said 1.8 million visitors of all ages from across the world, visited the memorial and monument last year. Americans who visit "feel a sense of patriotism and get a lesson in history," he said. The experience is often so powerful that, "I've seen grown men cry. It doesn't matter the age. It's very emotional."
For the majority of people who won't be able to mark the 72nd Pearl Harbor Day in Hawaii, the website DoSomething.org last year published a list of suggested ways to mark the day from afar, including:
1. Lowering a flag to half-staff.
2. Volunteering at a Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day celebration.
3. Bringing flowers to a soldiers' grave.
4. Using chalk to leave supportive messages near a military base or veterans' facility.
5. Honoring troops who are currently serving, perhaps by sending an email, package or letter.
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."