Today, to commemorate the day, I went to the National World War II Museum here in New Orleans. But before I tell you about that, I want to share a little digression, if I may, on the meaning of history and how we, collectively and personally, confront it.
December 7th is one of those dates on the calendar that just sticks in my head. November 22nd, the same thing. Which is strange, because I wasn’t alive for the assassination of JFK, let alone the events of World War II. And yet, for as long as I can remember, I have awoken on the morning of December 7 with the conscious connection of the calendar date to the event: Pearl Harbor day.
I suppose that’s obvious. To me, and anyone born after, there has never not been an attack on Pearl Harbor. Just as for children born in the last decade, September 11th will always be the day the Towers came down. But I remember when September 11th was just the day after my sister’s birthday.
Like Pearl Harbor and JFK, 9/11 marked a major shift in the national, if not the human, zeitgeist. Virtually every adult over the age of 18 today probably has a memory related to an experience they had on that day. I will never forget being awakened on that clear blue morning in my East Village apartment, by a phone call from a friend in California, telling me to turn on my television and watch what was happening less than a mile away, at a place that would later be known, familiarly, as Ground Zero. And though, in our reflections of the event immediately afterwards, we could all identify that something in our conception with the world and our interactions with each other changed in a profound way, we could not quite put our fingers on it. Maybe we can now, but not at the time. It was subtle, and gradual. For those of us not directly affected, our actual lives went on largely as they had before. But for future generations, history books will evaluate the era, and label it, and see that gradual, unmistakable spiritual change as a seismic shift, facilitated by two big planes hitting two big buildings. Graphically, it might resemble a dark swath with a hard edge.
In the post-assassination 60’s, the times they were a-changing, but you would be hard-pressed to find someone who would articulate that they had “lost their innocence”, and likewise, the young men and women who set out to save the world in the 1940’s could not be aware that they were “the Greatest Generation.” All they knew is that the world had suddenly gotten smaller and more frightening, and it was suddenly thrust upon them to receive the decisive challenge and to face it. I wonder what they will dub the post-911 America in 30 years. How will they define this era? Will it be the disintegration of public discourse and the collapse of the American political system? Maybe they will notice, with greater objectivity, how racism and prejudice and environmental ignorance were inflamed and exploited in times of conflict; how we ceased speaking face to face and did all of our communication via keyboard and touch screen; how we parceled ourselves into competing camps and waged fights of survival over petty territorial pissings and disagreements about the veracity of our precious superstitions and our personal myths; Maybe they could use a neat, trite phrase to sum it all up, like the “Era of Fear.” Or maybe they won’t consider history anymore, and simply construct a massive temple of circuits and monitors that portrays the history of mankind in an endless stream of YouTube videos and virtual video games.
We still have an old-fashioned temple to history in New Orleans, and in case you weren’t aware, it’s world-class. I had been to the National World War II Museum twice before today, but the last time was a few years ago, and I had no idea how much the place has been expanding. It really is a local treasure, and if you’ve never been, I strongly recommend paying a visit. Give yourself some time while you’re there. In the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion, which is the main building and which houses the bulk of the informational exhibits, you are self-guided through the two major prongs of American involvement: the campaign in Europe and the one in the Pacific. They are separate but connected wings, with dim halls and meticulously laid out exhibits in chronological order, with an overwhelming amount of signage, artifacts, re-creations, maps, photographs, audio and video to help you understand the event in more than just it’s historical and political context. I made my way directly to the wing which dealt with the Pacific Theatre, since on my previous visits I had run out of time and only given them cursory attention. Much of the detailed information focuses on the many arduous battles over several tiny islands in the south Pacific, which, though the bloodiest and most savage of the war, are largely unfamiliar to most people. Even if you think that you only have a passing interest in a war that happened more than 70 years ago, the thoroughness and compelling stories contained within will blow you away. Even though you may be aware of the historical fact that the persecution of Japanese-Americans occurred, seeing pictures and hearing testimony from that era make it a living fact. Even though you may have an inkling that the inflammation of racism and demonization on both sides occurred, staring at an array of propaganda posters in which Japanese are portrayed as lice and monkeys and the white Allied forces as rats and demons has a real ring of the familiar. And even though you may be aware that in 1945 the United States developed, tested and deployed 2 atomic bombs on two mid-size cities in Japan in a period of 3 days, you will never stop getting a cold grip in your stomach when you watch the grainy, black-and-white footage of a mushroom cloud rising, billowing, glowing, and seeming to hang there, in a frozen moment; a moment that altered the course of civilization forever.
Although I didn’t, on this visit, purchase a ticket to watch the 4D movie “Beyond All Boundaries” in the Solomon Victory Theatre, I’ve seen it twice before, and I highly recommend it. The 4D designation refers to the immersive nature of the experience, in which you will feel the rumbling of tanks and the vibration of explosions. Try and get a seat near the front, so you can get snowed on during the Battle of the Bulge.
There are two new buildings on the site of the museum and one of them, called Campaigns of Courage, will not open until next week. It will feature comprehensive interactive exhibits titled Road to Berlin and Road to Tokyo. I went into the other new building, the U.S. Freedom Pavilion (or Boeing Center) which houses the huge hanging aircraft, weapons and audio/visual screens which focus on the war as it happened through the air.
It was in the Boeing Center that I met John Wearing. While standing on a high catwalk and looking down on a B-17 bomber suspended from the ceiling, a spry elderly man in a dark suit came walking up. He had a special WWII veteran placard around his neck, and a startlingly blue shirt that matched his vibrant eyes. He was walking with another man about half his age, who I learned later to be a friend named Rick, from their native Detroit. At first only eavesdropping while he spoke with some other people about the B-17, I managed to introduce myself and was thrilled to get several minutes of John’s time as he told me about himself and his experience in the war.
It turns out that John, at the age of 19, was a tail-gunner on a plane much like the one we were looking at. He was one of 9 crew members aboard the B-17 bomber called the Five Grand, and flew 35 missions in six months during his tour in the Air Force from 1943-45. Now 90 years young, he is the only living survivor of that crew, though at the first reunion around 10 years ago, all but one of the men were in attendance. That man, Harry Wise, had not survived the war.
“Our co-pilot, who always wanted to be a fighter pilot, he signed up for another tour, as a fighter pilot, and I think he went down on his third mission.” John told me that Wise’s son contacted him a few years ago from Florida, because he wanted to meet John and talk with him about his father, whom he had never met. It seems to have been cathartic for both men. “He was a great guy,” John repeated of his lost comrade Harry. “But he wanted to be a fighter pilot.”
John and the other man, his friend Rick, had just attended a screening of Beyond All Boundaries, and they asked me if I had seen it yet. I told them I had, on my last visit, and that I thought it was very emotional.
“I just came out of there,” John said, “and I’m winded.”
It’s worth noting that in Franklin Roosevelt’s original draft of the famous Dec. 8th address to Congress and the nation, he described Dec. 7th, 1941 as “a date which will live in world history”. Later, while making some hand-written edits of the typed speech, he amended the phrase to “live in infamy.” And though the final version certainly delivers more power and emotion, the draft version would have been no less true.