Ashner: Urgent to gather WWII memories now

A colorized photo of USS West Virginia during

A colorized photo of USS West Virginia during the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. USS Tennessee is inboard of the sunken battleship. (Dec. 7, 1941) (Credit: National WWII Museum)

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Michael L. Ashner, chairman and chief executive of Winthrop Realty Trust in Jericho, is a trustee of the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.

 

It began as an ordinary December Sunday. People were gathered around the radio listening to a football game or planning holiday parties, not girding for battle.


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But on Dec. 7, 1941, when the first report came over the radio at 2:26 p.m. Eastern time of a "bombing in Hawaii," the news was electrifying. Seventy years later, almost every American still alive who heard it then can tell you exactly what he or she was doing when news broke of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

That bombing was for the Greatest Generation what 9/11 is for younger ones: a defining moment. Both events remind us about the importance of national unity. Both inspired young people to come to the aid of their country.

And just as we pause in September to remember, we pause today to recall another attack on another morning. Pearl Harbor marked a watershed in the nation's history, and the nation 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 gasoline and sugar to the harnessing of atomic power to putting more women in the workplace. We united to defend our democracy. More than 400,000 Americans would make the ultimate sacrifice. Nearly 28,000 from New York State died in combat.

That's 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.

In 2003, Congress designated The National WWII Museum as the nation's home for preserving the memory of that global conflict. The museum was given the task of telling the story of America in the Second World War: why the war was fought, how it was won, and what it means today.

It's the museum's mission to collect and hold not just the artifacts of war -- the tanks and jeeps, bombers and firearms -- but also the memories of the ordinary people who flew the planes, fought the battles, and ran the factories that won for us, and for all freedom-loving people, a resounding victory.

Being a repository of objects is one mission of a good museum. We need touchstones to history. That's why, at the site of the Twin Towers, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum has been busy assembling artifacts to bear solemn witness to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Feb. 26, 1993.

And a museum must also hold memories: the recollections and knowledge of those who encountered history. The World War II museum has collected thousands of recordings of the vivid, firsthand accounts of veterans. But there's a sense of urgency now. The department is seeking more personal stories, wartime letters, diaries and photographs. Most of those who experienced 9/11 are still with us. Sadly, most of those at Pearl Harbor are not. The World War II veterans are leaving us. Anyone interested in sharing a story or donating an item should visit nationalww2

museum.org.

Sixteen million Americans served in uniform in that war. More than 90 percent have died, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. In New York, only about 92,000 of the more than 1.6 million who served are still with us today.

World War II is moving from living memory to history. We must preserve and pass on the legacy of the Greatest Generation, the details of its experiences in battle and on the home front, its service and sacrifice, so that today's children will know and understand the price of our freedom.

Today I urge every American to remember Pearl Harbor. To do so honors those who fought and celebrates the liberty they so resolutely defended.

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