When Memory Serves

John Wayne behind-the-scenes of The Green Berets (1968).

On December 7, the Journal reflects on National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.

Written by Jenn Thornton

On the morning of December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, killing a total of 2,390 American service members and civilians, including 1,177 sailors and Marines who died on the USS Arizona. The day after the attack, the formerly neutral America entered World War II and the Greatest Generation faced the most difficult challenge of their time, rising time and again to the occasion.

The memory of that fateful day still lives in infamy, as then president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, proclaimed it, and one that Americans—the majority of who have no memory of the war at all—honor each year on December 7, which in 1994, Congress designated as National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day.

No one needed to remind John Wayne to remember the troops. Though he never served in uniform himself, he vigorously supported the American military throughout his life. He made a dozen World War II pictures portraying the type of soldiers he deeply and genuinely respected. Many of his war films centered around events in the Pacific Theater, which stemmed from the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the war years he made Flying Tigers (1942), The Fighting Seabees (1944), They Were Expendable(1945), Back to Bataan (1945), Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) for which he earned an Oscar nomination, and the Flying Leathernecks (1951). A decade after the war’s end he made In Harm’s Way (1965). Directed by Otto Preminger, filmed partly in Hawaii, and produced in cooperation with the Department of Defense and the Department of the Navy, it is the film perhaps most closely connected with Pearl Harbor itself, with Wayne portraying Capt. “Rock” Torrey.

Wayne’s on-screen forays, along with his work with the USO, touring hospitals and military bases in the South Pacific, helped boost morale at home and abroad. His European Theater-set films included Reunion in Europe (1942) and the D-Day ensemble epic The Longest Day (1965). Later, as a civilian (but still the world’s biggest Hollywood star), he traveled to Vietnam to visit the troops, corresponding with many of the men who later reached out to him, and went on to make The Green Berets (1968).

So, as this year marks the 81st year since the attack on Pearl Harbor, John Wayne—were he still with us—would no doubt commemorate National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day with gusto. You can, too. Those lucky enough to be in Hawaii, can attend public ceremonies held at the USS Arizona Memorial and Pearl Harbor National Memorial, and also visit the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. On the mainland United States, the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC welcomes to visitors year-round.

No matter where one is on National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, we can reflect on the many ways the events of Pearl Harbor and World War II touched Americans directly and indirectly. It is incumbent upon each one of us to honor and remember the sacrifices made on the battlefields of Europe, the Pacific and right here at home to preserve the freedoms and democracy we enjoy today. That’s worth celebrating every day.