It began as an ordinary December day. People were gathered around the radio listening to a football game or planning holiday parties, not girding for battle. But on Dec. 7, 1941, when the first Associated Press report came over the radio at 2:22 p.m. Eastern Standard Time of a “bombing in Hawaii,” the news was electrifying. Seventy years later, every American living now who heard it then can still tell you exactly what he was doing when he learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Even my mother and father, who are Americans of Chinese descent and were then only in their teens growing up in a war-torn and chaotic China, heard of this unimaginable attack. As they tried to survive amidst the domestic upheaval and foreign invasion in the land of their birth, the attack on Pearl Harbor was shocking news in a country itself devastated by tragedy and horrors.
Pearl Harbor marked a watershed in the nation’s history and we knew it. What came after would be very different from what came before. It was the war that changed the world. “The Day of Infamy” thrust us into a conflict more than four years long that altered nearly every aspect of American life, large and small – from rationing gas and sugar to the harnessing of atomic power to the new role of women in the workplace. We united to defend our democracy. For more than 400,000, it would be the ultimate sacrifice.
That is why it is so important to remember the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor and all the 70th anniversaries of World War II events that follow. It is the reason I proudly serve on the board of trustees of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.
In 2003, Congress designated the National World War II Museum to preserve the memory of that global conflict, by telling the story of America in World War II – why it was fought, how it was won and what it means today. It is our mission to collect and hold not just the artifacts of war – the tanks, jeeps, bombers and firearms – but also the memories of the ordinary men and women who flew the planes, fought the battles and manned the factories that won for us a resounding victory.
But the National World War II Museum is more than just a memorial or a repository for this history. We are committed to studying, interpreting and conveying the priceless lessons and values of World War II to all future generations.
We work knowing that these are endangered memories. The World War II veterans are leaving us. Sixteen million Americans served in uniform in World War II. More than 90 percent are gone, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The war is moving from living memory to history. We must preserve and pass on the legacy of the “Greatest Generation,” the details of their experiences in battle and on the home front, their service and sacrifice, so that today’s children will know and understand the price of our freedom.
I invite you to New Orleans to see this work in action. On Dec. 7-9, for example, the museum will hold a three-day public conference featuring leading historians and renowned authors discussing Pearl Harbor and the first year of combat in the Pacific. The museum is expanding to accommodate our iconic artifacts. Next Veterans Day, we will proudly open the U.S. Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center, an extraordinary addition featuring tributes to all branches of military service, six aircraft including the Boeing B-17 “Flying Fortress,” and a “virtual” submarine experience recreating the last war patrol of the USS Tang. Our distance education initiatives, social media and online exhibits bring the experience and memories of World War II to people far and wide.
More than 130,000 Americans from coast to coast are already members of the museum. I thank them for their support, and I urge every American to remember Pearl Harbor. To do so honors those who fought and celebrates the liberty they so resolutely defended.
Elaine L. Chao was secretary of labor in the George W. Bush administration and is a board member of the National World War II Museum.