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Pearl survivors add poignancy

LAST UPDATED: 4:20 p.m. HST, Dec 7, 2011

The recollections of the last few members of an honored alliance — the survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor, 70 years ago today — are to be cherished as the living record of a stark historical pivot for the nation, and a turning point for the islands as well.

The peace of a Sunday morning in Hawaii and the uneasy prewar calm across America were shattered by the bombs and strafing, as were the families of the thousands in the harbor who gave their lives. Every year — and, with greater fanfare, every decade — the ceremonies make the point that this was a moment never to be forgotten.

The moment drew the U.S. at last into World War II. And whether or not everyone accepts the rationale for "The Good War" being the moniker for that conflict, all can agree that the war mission inspired a broad commitment from Americans. The repurposing of U.S. industry ultimately cleared the economic wreckage of the Great Depression and laid the groundwork for the postwar flourishing of the middle class.

And it was that middle class that later had the resources for vacationing in Waikiki, which jet travel made more affordable and spurred the explosive growth of the tourism industry as the central pillar of the Hawaii economy. Statehood, and the lightning-fast development of a previously rural society, soon followed.

The enduring impact of the events of Dec. 7, 1941, has been documented and celebrated by those who have made studying this period their life's work. Daniel Martinez, chief historian at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, noted this week that a new chapter in the chronicle is being written "as this generation passes." Only 18 of the 334 who survived the attack on the USS Arizona are known to be alive. The ending of this era is inevitable but no less a loss for Americans who need reminders of what actually happened.

"It was just 13 minutes of hell," one of them, 90-year-old Louis Conter, told Star-Advertiser writer William Cole. Countless books have been written and TV and feature films made, including some products that are new or newly restored this season. And while the images and words they capture are vivid, there's nothing to equal the first-person account of a young quartermaster who was on watch and witnessed the armor-piercing bomb that penetrated the forward deck and lit the fuse of its fuel and powder stores.

A human retelling of terrifying sights and sounds is unmatched, because that drives home the grisly reality of war as nothing else can.

Today is one of the remaining chances to honor the dead by paying tribute to their living comrades. They deserve a full measure of gratitude from the country they defended.

What makes this memorial poignant is that now the relevance of this region is finally becoming clear on several fronts. Hawaii ranks high on a list of strategic military bases for the defense of U.S. interests, and it's a crossroads for rising powers within the Asia-Pacific basin.

Keeping our gaze ahead, focused on the mounting importance of these countries in the future, is wise. But for today, let's give a long and hard look behind us, determined not to forget the tragedy that, seven decades ago, drew the eyes of the world to this once-sleepy outpost in the first place.

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