Pearl Harbor, Remote to Teens, Newly Relevant Because of 9/11

Times Staff Writers

To most sophomores in Cora Peck’s history class at Irvine High School, today is just another Tuesday.

There are no ceremonies scheduled. No moments of silence planned. And only a few students recalled the date as the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which drew the U.S. into World War II.

When you’re a teenager, 1941 may as well be ancient history.

Perhaps it’s paradoxical, then, that while the events of this date 63 years ago mean little to Peck’s students, they do believe that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have afforded them an unexpected window on Pearl Harbor Day’s importance to past generations.


“It has more significance to us now than it did before,” said Bryan Beard, 16. “We’ve had 9/11. We know what it means to be attacked.”

Indeed, while Dec. 7 continues to pack an emotional wallop for aging World War II veterans and other Americans who lived through it, most students view the event through the prism of what they’ve learned about it in class or gleaned from movies. That evolution, historians and educators agree, is largely to be expected.

“Pearl Harbor is one of the events that continues to have some saliency,” said Sam Wineburg, a professor of education at Stanford University who specializes in how students understand history. “But can students tell you its significance? What preceded it? The historical context? Probably not. Americans, especially American kids, get their history through the screen, not through books.”

Yet recent events, perhaps enhanced by the visual poignancy of live television, appear to have given the Japanese sneak attack renewed import.

Jack Hammett -- an 84-year-old retired Navy man, Pearl Harbor attack survivor and founder of the Freedom Committee of Orange County, which sends combat veterans to lecture students on history -- understands this. That’s why, whenever possible, he asks his 49-year-old daughter, Deborah, who was five blocks from the World Trade Center when the second plane hit on Sept. 11 and spent three days sifting through the rubble, to accompany him on his visits to schools.

“We sort of do a ham-and-egg thing,” he said. “We draw a parallel, equating Pearl Harbor to the Twin Towers.”

The result, Hammett said, is that many students gain a renewed appreciation of what previously may have seemed personally irrelevant and historically remote.

“Pearl Harbor was the first time in modern history that America was hit in its own territory,” he said. “It’s a history lesson about what it was like to bring a slumbering nation awake.”