Remembering Pearl Harbor, in a search for heroes

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On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Jeff Maner was sitting on the deck of the USS Dobbin, a maintenance ship docked just across battleship row in Pearl Harbor. He was wearing white shorts and a T-shirt, taking in the morning sun while reading "Mutt & Jeff" in the Honolulu daily.

The calm of that Sunday morning before the attack began has become a standard part of Pearl Harbor lore. But Mr. Maner, a member of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, has been telling the details of his story more often lately, especially to those with a newfound curiosity about the day that changed the course of his life - and the nation's.

This weekend's release of "Pearl Harbor" is only the latest in a nationwide explosion of interest in the generation that fought in World War II (see reviews, pages 16 and 18). Over the past few years, new films such as "Saving Private Ryan" and bestselling books including "The Greatest Generation" have led the resurgence in tributes to WWII vets and their civilian counterparts. Even Congress is debating a new memorial for those who fought in the European and Pacific fronts.

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But why this resurgence, and why now? Many point out that the "greatest generation" is in its waning years - the nation is losing an average of 1,100 WWII vets each day - and there is a greater sense of urgency to hear their stories once again.

Yet there has also been a subtle, if noticeable, shift in how the country wants to memorialize its battle-scarred veterans. After a decade of unprecedented wealth and prosperity, the values of sacrifice, valor, and heroism have once again captured the public's imagination.

"This is something more than just a casual interest in something that happened 55 years ago," says Peter Prato, a Navy veteran who fought on the Pacific front. "This generation is looking for something deeper and more treasured as a value than what they now have."

Since Vietnam, the portrayal of war in film has generally been marked by moral uncertainty and troubling realism. The swashbuckling heroism of John Wayne in the 1949 movie "Sands of Iwo Jima," for example, gave way to the grimy horror of Marlon Brando in "Apocalypse Now," released in 1979. By the 1990s, however, even though "Saving Private Ryan" was hailed by veterans for its breathtaking technical precision in portraying the horrific chaos of the battlefield, it ended not with moral ambiguity and condemnation, but a real-life memorial to soldiers, heroes who had fallen.

Yet while cultural portrayals of war may have shifted over time, the sudden attack on Pearl Harbor has remained a seminal event for Americans from all generations, a single episode that changed the underpinnings of US society.

"It was a great unifying force," says Mr. Prato. "It drew this country together like no other incident that I can remember. Suddenly, the whole nation came together under the battle cry 'Remember Pearl Harbor.' " He then hums a tune from the time: "Remember Pearl Harbor as we go to meet the foe, remember Pearl Harbor as we did the Alamo."

As long lines of young men crowded recruiting stations across the country, women for the first time entered the work force en masse. Posters and songs about "Rosie the Riveter" celebrated the women who filled factories and shipyards and were essential for the war effort.

In some ways, Pearl Harbor also helped bring an end to Jim Crow laws in the South.

One of the heroes portrayed in the new film "Pearl Harbor" is Dorie Miller, played by Cuba Gooding Jr. In 1941, black Americans, by official Navy policy, could not serve in any capacity other than cooks or messmen, since they were said to lack the courage, skill, and initiative required for battle. But during the attack, Miller, who served on the USS West Virginia, not only helped carry his mortally wounded captain from the ship's burning bridge, he manned a machine gun and shot down at least two of the 29 Japanese planes destroyed during the battle.

The exploits of Ship's Cook Third Class Miller, though downplayed by the Navy, were seized upon by black newspapers and civil rights organizations. "They used the example of Dorie Miller in Pearl Harbor as a way to leverage for greater inclusion - not only in the war effort, but in American society more broadly," says Phil Klinker, a government professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.

The poet Langston Hughes memorialized Miller with the lines: "When Dorie Miller took gun in hand/ Jim Crow started his last stand./ Our battle yet is far from won/ But when it is, Jim Crow'll be done./ We gonna bury that son-of-a-gun."

The far-ranging cultural impact of Pearl Harbor and World War II is also intimated in the public's response to its commemorative shrines. Of all public memorials, the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor has one of the greatest impacts on its visitors, says Carole Blair, a professor at the University of California at Davis, who has been studying US commemorations in the 20th century.

"This place is really different in the consciousness of most US citizens, compared to other sacralized places," says Ms. Blair. Even more than places like Arlington National Cemetery, the USS Arizona Memorial evokes a reverence and a silence that's not true of most other sites, she says.

While most veterans are looking forward to seeing the passion and heroism of the new movie "Pearl Harbor," it is this kind of reverence and silence, they believe, that will best mark this weekend's Memorial Day commemorations.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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