Process Blog Home

From Memory to History? The Pearl Harbor 75th Anniversary

If 50th anniversaries of war tend to be the last grand occasion in which the war generation’s veterans and survivors commemorate their war, what do 75th anniversaries do? And for whom? Whereas the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack in 1991 ushered in a period of national commemorations featuring veterans billed as the Greatest Generation who fought America’s Good War, what will the 75th anniversary feature?[1]

For Americans born after the war the 75th anniversary on December 7th marks the turn toward an era of post-witness remembrance. Yes, a handful of veterans will attend ceremonies at Pearl Harbor, but stories appearing during the run-up to the anniversary focus as much on the passing of survivors as on their stories. Most recently the death of Raymond Haerry, one of only six remaining survivors from the battleship USS Arizona, made national news.

Although it is foolish to set the words ‘memory’ and ‘history’ in opposition to one another, the end of the era of first-person witnessing for World War II, so often discussed in the literature on the Holocaust, sees history supplanting (and appropriating) memory, at least if we think of the latter as rooted in spoken narrative. What might this mean for commemoration of the Pearl Harbor 75th? The most visible change, it seems, is not so much a move away from storytelling as an expansion of the range of stories deemed relevant for commemoration. While Pearl Harbor will always be a place where martial narratives of heroism and sacrifice find a prominent stage, the current moment suggests a greater tolerance for less narrowly patriotic analyses of the politics and conduct of the war.


Pearl Harbor Visitor Center entrance.

If changes at the national Pearl Harbor memorial in Hawai‘i are any indication, the 75th anniversary will reflect an ongoing shift away from a historiography centered only on the stories of American combatants to a broader canvas of conflicts that also includes homeland sacrifices and injustices as well as the perspectives of former enemies and themes of reconciliation.[2] The fact that the USS Arizona memorial is a burial place ensures that remembrance there will always to some degree be predicated on narratives of death and sacrifice, inscribed in a memorial wall of names and personalized in the stories of medal recipients. And yet the past ten years of commemoration at Pearl Harbor have shown a progressive expansion of official history to encompass such subjects as the experiences of civilians, Japanese American internment, and Japanese perspectives on the war. Still mostly in the margins, however, and in many ways silenced by the call to remember, are the voices of Native Hawaiians, many of whom regard the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor as a painful symbol of military occupation and loss.[3, 4].

Following the creation of a new national monument in 2008 that grouped the USS Arizona Memorial together with several other World War II sites (the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument) and the opening of a larger museum and visitor center at Pearl Harbor in 2010, events that would have once been marginal or excluded from official memorial space began to take their place alongside military remembrance. These included a Japanese tea ceremony conducted on the memorial in 2011 and a permanent museum exhibit about an iconic atomic bomb victim (Sadako Sadaki, a 12-year-old girl who succumbed to radiation sickness) dedicated in 2013. Neither of these events would have been considered during the 1980s and 90s when Japanese participation was pointedly excluded from official events in the sacred centers of national memory. During the last decade, however, as United States strategic interests in the Pacific have increasingly looked to Japan to expand its military capacity, the U.S. Navy has shown greater interest in the cosponsorship of commemorative activities. Indicative of the embrace of relations with Japan in recent commemorative activities, the official theme of last year’s 74th anniversary of Pearl Harbor was “Pathway to Reconciliation: From Engagement to Peace.”

Although less of a hot button issue than Japanese presence in memorial events, Japanese American issues and perspectives also remained in the margins of Pearl Harbor commemorative activities through much of the twentieth century. Thus, the National Park Service documentary shown to all those who visit the Arizona Memorial could refer to base commanders’ worries about Japanese American sabotage without making reference to the actual state of Japanese American loyalty or the post-attack detention of large numbers of Japanese residents, American citizens and immigrants alike. With growing public recognition of the injustices of internment as well as the distinguished military service of Japanese Americans, Japanese American issues have taken a more central place in Pearl Harbor exhibits and anniversaries. The current issue of the magazine Remembrance, put out by the nonprofit partner of the National Park Service at Pearl Harbor, is dedicated to the stories of Americans of Japanese ancestry, introduced by pointing out that, “…it was not just an attack on Pearl Harbor. The human story goes beyond the brave men in uniform that day… There is also an Oahu story that includes American citizens of Japanese ancestry who suffered untold hardship and would end up in a war fought on two fronts.” [5:3]. And the creation of a new national monument at the site of the largest internment camp in Hawai‘i, Honouliuli—a site that confined both Japanese Americans and Japanese military POWs in the same facility—ensures that the “tell the history of internment, martial law, and the experience of prisoners of war in Hawai‘i during World War II” will join the Pearl Harbor attack in the ways World War II is remembered in national historic sites.

‘Blackened Canteen Ceremony’. Hiroyu Sigano, Daniel Martinez and Takeshi Maeda pour water from a B-29 canteen into the well of the USS Arizona Memorial. December 7, 2006.

‘Blackened Canteen Ceremony’. Hiroyu Sigano, Daniel Martinez and Takeshi Maeda pour water from a B-29 canteen into the well of the USS Arizona Memorial. December 7, 2006.

This year’s anniversary offers a public demonstration of these emergent transformations in the official centers of national memory. Certainly military ceremonies with honor guards, speeches and wreath presentations will continue to occupy center stage. At the same time, however, the lineup of official events scheduled over the course of eleven days offers up a highly varied set of activities. To some extent the anniversary program has the feel of a festival complete with band performances, film showings, gala fundraisers and even a “Fox Sports Pearl Harbor Basketball Invitational.” And yet specific commemorative activities include a tribute to Japanese American veterans titled “Fighting Two Wars,” two events honoring Doris Miller, the most well-known African American sailor decorated for his actions during the attack, and two “private events” involving Japanese nationals making offerings on the USS Arizona Memorial. The latter include a presentation titled the “Blackened Canteen Ceremony” that features a Japanese citizen honoring an American bomber crew who perished in a bombing raid on his hometown and a second, labeled an “Interfaith Prayer Service,” that brings together “diverse spiritual leaders,” including several Japanese Buddhist organizations, to offer prayers for “all of those that gave their lives on that fateful December day representing veterans of the United States and Japan.”

Historically Americans alive in 1941 needed no explanation of the importance of the Pearl Harbor bombing. Those born after the war, if they know it at all however, may know it only as a mythic moment in the timeless past. Postwar generations have their own critical events that define turning points in their lives. Thus, the September 11 attacks that were instantly compared to the Pearl Harbor bombing when they happened now supplant them in American historical consciousness. If the Pearl Harbor bombing is still, in some quarters, invoked to understand the September 11 attacks, in what ways might the history of the remembrance of Pearl Harbor inform the ways Americans remember September 11? Is it possible that an iconic call to “remember” in one era actually becomes a vehicle for forgetting in another?

Geoffrey White is professor emeritus in the department of anthropology at the University of Hawai’i. His book Memorializing Pearl Harbor: Unfinished Histories and the Work of Remembrance was published this year by Duke University Press.
Daniel Martinez is chief historian at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument in Honolulu, Hawaii. He began his career with the National Park Service at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and moved to the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor in 1985.


  1. Rosenberg, E.S., A Date Which Will Live: Pearl Harbor in American Memory. 2004, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  2. White, G.M., Memorializing Pearl Harbor: Unfinished Histories and the Work of Remembrance. 2016, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  3. Osorio, J.K., Memorializing Pu’uloa and Remembering Pearl Harbor, in Militarized currents : toward a decolonized future in Asia and the Pacific, S. Shigematsu and K.L. Camacho, Editors. 2010, University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis. p. 3–14.
  4. Gonzalez, V.V., Securing Paradise: Tourism and Militarism in Hawai’i and the Philippines. Next wave. 2013, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  5. L’Heureux, R., President’s Message, in Remembrance: A Pacific Historic Parks Publication. 2016, Pacific Historic Parks: Honolulu. p. 3.