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PBS ‘Pearl Harbor’ documentaries bind historic tragedy to present day

Don Stratton survived the sinking of the USS

Don Stratton survived the sinking of the USS Arizona during the Pearl Harbor attacks in 1941. Photo Credit: Story House Productions

THE DOCUMENTARIES “Pearl Harbor — USS Oklahoma: The Final Story” and “Pearl Harbor — Into the Arizona”

WHEN | WHERE Wednesday at 8 and 9 p.m. on WNET/13

GRADES A

WHAT IT’S ABOUT When the USS Oklahoma capsized on Dec. 7, 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, hundreds of men — some believed still alive — were trapped below decks. Most of their remains would not be recovered until 1943, while almost all of those (429) would be unidentified. This hour includes the story of Bethany Glenn, who would achieve closure for her family when the remains of her grandfather were finally identified.

“Into the Arizona” is about a recent — and landmark — expedition into the USS Arizona, which was destroyed in Pearl Harbor when a bomb struck the powder magazine, killing 1,177 officers and crewmen. With the use of an ROV (remotely operated vehicle), the National Park Service and the Woods Hole Institute of Oceanography — seeking to determine the rate of decay in the inner hull — take viewers to parts of the submerged ship that have not been seen in 75 years.

MY SAY After three-quarters of a century, and countless TV retrospectives, there would appear to be nothing left to say about Pearl Harbor, and nothing left to see, either. This pair of films easily invalidate that fallacy. The first hour on the USS Oklahoma begins, “What happened on Dec. 7 is still being uncovered,” while the second hour is largely based on that which has been unseen. Together, these two make the case — a compelling one — that there will always be something left to say and see.

“The Final Story” is about a long absence. Ensign John C. England, 20, of Alhambra, California, is aboard the USS Oklahoma on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. He has a wife and baby daughter stateside. Just four days before his 21st birthday, he will become one of 429 killed aboard the ship. His tragedy is frozen in time, but a family is left to grope through the void of his loss until Aug. 13 of this year, when his remains are finally laid to rest next to his parents’ in Colorado Springs. “I’m happy to celebrate his life now [because] it seems like we’ve mourned him for so long,” says Glenn, the granddaughter he would never know but who would always know him.

It’s a powerful story, as if it could be otherwise, but hardly the final story: There are still hundreds of unknown sailors from the USS Oklahoma buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

“Into the Arizona” is a journey into a tomb. The ROV gropes its way through the darkness, kicking up silt, piercing the shadows. Human remains have long since disappeared. The ROV uncovers yet another void — a different kind from the one of “The Final Story.” There were people here, not so long ago — you don’t need an ROV or grainy footage to tell you that — but the upper decks have higher levels of oxygen, thus a higher rate of metal decomposition.

It’s only when the ROV descends farther into the ship that the eye begins to see what the imagination no longer tries to: An officer’s uniform, still on the hanger where it was neatly placed 75 years ago, is perfectly suspended in the still depths. An officer’s cap is placed on a table nearby.

BOTTOM LINE A pair of films about Dec. 7, 1941, binds one of the most important days in history to the present, through pictures, and emotions.

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