By MARSHA MERCER
On the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, eye witnesses once again will tell their personal stories of Dec. 7, 1941.
Survivors will share first-hand accounts in Hawaii, the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, the National World War II Museum in New Orleans and in countless cities and towns across the country.
Our time in the circle of living history is short, and the rest of us should treasure this moment. All too soon, the memories of the brave men and women who served in World War II will be available only on video, audio recording and written word.
Chapters of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association are wrapping up their final meetings. Founded in 1958, the national organization will return its charter to Congress and close down at the end of the month because of declining membership.
“We’ve run a course and I think we’ve had a good course to run,” Bob Kerr, a director of the survivors group, told NPR.
We’re losing about 740 World War II veterans every day, and the Veterans Administration estimates that by Veterans Day 2036, not one World War II veteran will remain. The question arises how -- and whether – Americans will Remember Pearl Harbor and World War II after the survivors and we who heard them tell their stories are gone.
It may seem preposterous to think that Americans might forget Pearl Harbor, where 2,400 Americans died in the surprise attack that blasted the nation into World War II. Or that we might slide away from World War II, Everybody’s War, where 291,000 died in combat and 114,000 died outside combat theaters. Tom Brokaw has immortalized “The Greatest Generation” for all time, right?
And yet, do we “Remember the Maine”? Do we “Remember the Lusitania”? Cataclysmic events in their day, they no longer strike a chord with most Americans.
The Battleship USS Maine blew up Feb. 15, 1898 in Havana harbor, killing 260 American sailors. The cause of the explosion was unknown, but the masters of yellow journalism blamed Spain, and soon the country was fighting the Spanish-American War.
The cruise ship Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of England May 7, 1915 and sank in 18 horrifying minutes, killing 1,200 men, women and children. among them 123 Americans. American public opinion turned against Germany, and the United States entered World War I two years later.
America’s last surviving veteran of the War to End All Wars died earlier this year. Frank Buckles was 110.
When most members of Congress were veterans of World War II, we could count on them to remember – even though we didn’t need them to do so. Today, only one in five members of Congress has even served in the military.
The two House members who co-sponsored the resolution for this year’s National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, are both World War II vets -- Rep. Ralph M. Hall, R-Tex., 88, and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., 85.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared Dec. 7, 1941, “a date which would live in infamy,” but global politics quickly intervened.
Just 10 years after the attack, Pearl Harbor was downplayed in the news media, says historian Jon Wiener at the University of California, Irvine.
“In fact, on Dec. 7, 1951, Pearl Harbor wasn’t remembered, at least not prominently in the major newspapers and magazines,” Wiener wrote in The Los Angeles Times. The 10th anniversary received little commemoration for very practical reasons.
“In 1951, the U.S. was fighting a new war on the Korean peninsula, and had just signed a security treaty with Japan, which made it a crucial ally and staging base for the Korean War. Remembering Pearl Harbor could interfere with the nation’s new mission,” Wiener wrote.
Searching newspaper archives, Wiener found a 10th anniversary editorial in The Washington Post that encouraged Americans to look ahead, not back, to foster harmonious Japanese-American relations in light of the Communist threat in Asia.
It's astonishing, knowing how much newspapers like anniversary stories, but neither the New York Times not Los Angeles Times mentioned Pearl Harbor the front page on Dec. 7, 1951.
A column in L.A. Times began, “This is the day on which innumerable Americans…will be tempted to go about boring other Americans to death with their reminiscences of where they were and exactly how they heard the news” of Pearl Harbor.
That’s harsh. Fortunately, our attitudes have mellowed, and there’s still time to listen to history’s witnesses share their memories of 70 years ago.
© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.