Remembering Pearl Harbor, in a Search for Heroes

Article excerpt

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.

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. …