My grandmother was a history teacher and she had a theory of how most students viewed past events: Those things that have happened since I was born and everything else. The Roman Empire and the American Civil War, therefore, happened around the same time as far as anyone in her classes was concerned.
It’s a funny line, and mostly true, but there is a secondary division that she didn’t identify: things that happened before I was born, but which my parents or grandparents remember. It’s an historical twilight period before events slip out of living memory and into the realm of myths and legends.
For most of my life, as a history-obsessed kid, World War II loomed large. The fighting ended two decades before I was born, but I could access it almost directly through a flood of books, movies, documentaries, toys, games, and, of course, the first-hand stories of those who lived it, whether on the front lines or the home front.
I can still outline the political and military buildup to the war and trace the battles and campaigns on a map with more confidence than I can recount even some events that happened in my own “Since I Was Born” era.
It’s a shock, therefore, to see the world’s most horrific and destructive (and arguably most interesting) event slipping out of that living memory zone.
There are only around 600,000 Americans alive today who served in the armed forces during World War II, according to government estimates, and that’s out of about 16 million who wore a uniform in some capacity during the fighting.
Only a tiny handful of those living veterans were even in uniform on Dec. 7, 1941, much less present at the attack that propelled the United States into the war, which was already two years old in Europe and a decade old in Asia.
It is getting harder to find people who remember the war even as civilians. Anyone born before Pearl Harbor would be at least 75 now. My own parents, both born in the 1930s, are now dead, and my in-laws were born toward the end of the war, so my kids have no immediate access to relatives who recall anything about that era.
For my kids, World War II has already joined the wars of Cesar and Napoleon and Grant, firmly in the “Before I Was Born” vault of history, accessible only in artifacts and books.
The previous major war, World War I, fell into the deep past in 2012, when the last known veteran of the Great War died. Even people who remember World War I as a child are now well over 100 years old. Sometime within the next decade or so there will be no human beings anywhere on earth born before the war.
Based on current life expectancy, I’ll probably live to see the day when the last World War II veteran dies. If they enjoy similar longevity to the World War I generation, that time will come sometime in the 2030s, nine decades after the end of the fighting.
Yet, the events of World War II will live on even when all those involved are gone. More than any event since the Civil War, it defined America’s society, government and self-image. It probably exceeds any other historical event in shaping the international order today and the place the United States plays in it.
Wednesday will be the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. There were about 60,000 service members assigned to the base or one of the ships present on that day. Of those, only about 2,000 are alive today, according to government estimates.
But we should still remember. It was a horrific humiliation for the United States, but one from which it recovered with astonishing speed and bravery. It was an important, if painful and costly, stepping stone to the superpower status that the United States still enjoys.
On the anniversary, the Register will publish a commemorative special edition including details and archival photos from the attack. Most importantly, it will include the first-hand accounts of some of those few survivors who remain.
Time is running out to touch that terrible day through their living memories. We’re proud to be able to bring some of that memory to you.