When St. Francis University students begin assistant professor Sarah Myers’ class about World War II, they usually possess a knowledge of the conflict’s milestone events.
There is D-Day, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and, of course, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, which occurred 75 years ago today – Dec. 7, 1941 – and thrust the United States into the global battle.
But many do not fully understand what day-to-day existence was like on the homefront with ration books, bond drives, the fear of seeing a Western Union telegram messenger come up the sidewalk, and victory gardens.
“I feel like people have a respect and appreciation for the people who lived through World War II, ‘The Greatest Generation,’ ” Myers said. “But younger generations haven’t had to experience anything similar in their lives.”
St. Francis, in an attempt to further educate students and others about the war, recently opened The Keirn Family World War II Museum, which tries to create a picture of life in the 1940s.
It houses artifacts and oral history projects, taken mostly from the private collection of Joseph E. Keirn, a retired command sergeant major in the Army.
Myers, who received her Ph.D. in history with a dissertation “ ‘A Weapon Waiting to Be Used:’ The Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) of World War II,” runs the museum.
‘Rally around the flag’
For young adults, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda provide the closest comparison to Pearl Harbor, although for current college students the events of that day might only be faint childhood memories.
Both attacks shocked the United States.
“I think, things being what they were at the end of 9/11 and how the war on terror has progressed now, it doesn’t take much imagination to think back how the attack – the sneak attack
– at Pearl Harbor affected the nation at that time,” John Brown, a Veteran Community Initiatives board member, said. “I think the key point is how – in both circumstances – the country was able to rally around the flag, so to speak, to try to address both those attacks.”
The nation, in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, was united.
Pearl Harbor similarly brought together citizens behind a common goal of defeating the Axis powers.
“It totally put the American people together without divisions,” Marty Kuhar, chairman of the Cambria County War Memorial Arena Authority’s veterans committee, said.
Kuhar called the attack an event “that changed the war, it changed the world.”
“Ironically, for us, it led into World War II, which is the major event in modern history,” Kuhar said.
“It still has a major effect on everything we do. It is the major event that defines us.”
‘Preserve the history’
Locally, groups and individuals have worked together – throughout generations – to keep alive the memory of Navy Petty Officer 1st Class John A. Lipple, an Ashville resident who was killed when the first wave of Japanese attackers struck the USS Arizona.
A documentary was released about Lipple’s life in 2012.
“We’re losing so many World War II veterans, and the need to preserve the history of those who were called ‘The Greatest Generation’ I think is very important in this day and age to give guidance and leadership to the subsequent generations,” said Vietnam War veteran Robert Eyer, Lipple’s nephew who chaired the video project.
This year, a flag-raising ceremony was scheduled to take place at the Ashville VFW Post 4315, the John Lipple Post, on Wednesday, beginning at
7:55 a.m. to mark the time when the attack on Pearl Harbor started.
It is one of the countless ceremonies that have been held throughout the decades to remember the events at Pearl Harbor.
“I just think it’s tremendous what they’ve been doing to honor them after 75 years,” VCI Director Tom Caulfield said. “All of this has held up despite all of the problems we have today.”
‘We signed up’
There are about 850,000 American World War II veterans still alive.
For them, the conflict is not just a collection of dates in history books or artifacts in museums. They are firsthand events that shaped their lives and the times in which they lived.
Harry Muncert, then a Southmont resident, recalls vividly when he heard about the attack.
“When Pearl Harbor was announced, all my buddies and I were congregated on the corner by the store, ready to enlist,” Muncert said. “Of course, we weren’t old enough. When our time came, that’s what we did; we signed up.”
The bombing provided a shocking realization about Japan’s intentions in the Pacific Ocean.
“Nobody knew about the Japanese except for their war in China at the time,” said Muncert, who left school before his senior year to join the
“We thought ‘we’ll beat those people in no time,’ but it didn’t end up that way.
“They destroyed our Pacific fleet, so to speak, and it took us a while to get regrouped and everything rebuilt and organized. Like the Japanese Admiral (Isoroku Yamamoto) said, he said, ‘I’m afraid we awoke the sleeping giant.’ And that turned out to be very, very true.”
Muncert, now a 92-year-old Westmont resident, would like to see more done to ensure the events of World War II, including Pearl Harbor, are remembered by future generations.
“There’s not enough history being taught in our schools today,” Muncert said. “Pearl Harbor and a lot of these historical occasions are given one paragraph on a page and that’s about it.”