By Joe Kernan: Warwick Beacon Newspaper Group-
One of the last tasks left from World War II is to make sure that America never forgets how much was sacrificed by so many to defeat the Axis powers.
Rhode Island filmmaker Tim Gray has been doing more than a little to make sure we remember. His latest film focuses on Pearl Harbor and the attack on it that forced the United States to finally take sides. The Axis powers were determined that a ruthless few would assert their perverse will over freedom-loving people everywhere.
Americans were reluctant to get involved. There were two vast oceans between America and the warring countries, and the first War to End All Wars was too recent to forget.
Then all hell broke loose. The vicious attack on Pearl Harbor happened and America was outraged. Young men, often teenagers, volunteered in droves after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor pushed the industrial might of the United States toward making war.
One veteran described Pearl Harbor as the first suicide bombing of the war. While some Japanese military men saw it as one of many victories, their most celebrated Admiral worried that they woke a “sleeping giant” and took the first step toward the destruction of Japan’s over-reaching empire.
Rhode Island filmmaker Tim Gray has spent the last decade gathering the real stories of the men and women who fought that war and has been telling those personal histories before all of the living memories pass on. His latest release, “Remember Pearl Harbor,” offers personal glimpses into the event that outraged Americans and provided the rallying cry of “Remember Pearl Harbor” to all the American troops in the Pacific. Those veterans are disappearing before all of their stories are recorded. Gray’s mission has been to get to as many of those veterans as possible.
“We are losing veterans [of that war] at about 750 per day,” said Gray, who is promoting his latest film about Pearl Harbor. “The window of time to gather their stories is closing very fast.”
As a seasoned journalist, Gray has a good ear for a good story, and he knew there was much that needed to be told about Pearl Harbor, an attack that stood as the worst on American soil until Sept. 11, 2001.
Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941 was a beautiful morning on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, as Gray’s news release described it. A few sailors and soldiers were already up and playing a game of football near Pearl Harbor. Others were sleeping in their barracks or aboard ships after a late night of partying in Honolulu.
An unlucky few were wiping the sleep from their eyes and reporting for duty aboard their ship anchored off Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. Still others headed for adjacent Hickam Field or up north to Wheeler Field.
Ship decks were being washed, planes wiped down and hangars swept. It was just another day in paradise.
At 7:48 a.m., all that changed as the first Japanese planes dropped their bombs and started firing their guns at stunned American soldiers and sailors. The United States had been violently thrown into World War II.
Anyone who was there can attest to the total confusion that followed. What is ironic about the timing of this film’s release is that it describes the moment the USA entered the war. Gray has done about 17 other films featuring the stories of ordinary citizens reacting with extraordinary courage in battles that were months and even years in the future. But in most cases those battles were anticipated.
“It’s hard for someone who wasn’t there to imagine the frustration and rage as the reality of what was happening unfolded. Every sailor, airman, soldier and civilian who was in or near Pearl Harbor … has their own individual story of courage, fear, heroics or tragedy,” wrote Gray. “No two stories from that day of infamy are the same … From sailors on the U.S.S Arizona and West Virginia on Battleship Row to pilots at Hickam and Wheeler Fields, to young children who were waved at by Japanese pilots flying over their homes, the memories remain vivid to this day.”
“Remember Pearl Harbor” will be featured in a sneak preview at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence next month. Gray had hoped that a local veteran, Raymond Haerry of the battleship Arizona, would be around for the premiere of Pearl Harbor.
An explosion threw Haerry, who was 19 at the time of the attack, into the water, according to his obituary. After swimming to shore, he helped defend against the attack and then to recover bodies after the attack had ended.
Haerry remained in the Navy, retiring as a master chief after serving for 25 years. He was one of six living crewmen from the USS Arizona before his death last month. Haerry’s son, Raymond Jr., suggested to The Associated Press that his father would be put to rest in Pearl Harbor.
“As he was getting closer to the end, I think he felt that if there’s any place that he’d like to be at rest, it would be with his crewmates, the people who suffered and died on that day,” Haerry Jr. told a reporter.
Gray hopes to host veterans at the sneak preview of the film at Veterans Memorial Auditorium on Sunday, Nov. 13 at 1 p.m. The event is being held in honor of Raymond Haerry and for all of all Rhode Islanders who have served. Tickets are free for all veterans and current military personnel with proper ID.
For people not familiar with Gray’s work, the former news anchor is an award-winning director, producer and writer based in Rhode Island. He has done 17 documentary films to date, including the preposterous but true story of the late Bruce Sundlun’s escape from occupied territory after his B-17 bomber was shot down over Europe. Gray focuses on the personal stories of World War II veterans. All of his films have aired nationally on American public television and in other countries such as China, Australia, France and England.
“I have always been interested in the history of the war,” said Gray, who is far too young to have been there. “There were so many personal stories, good stories. People talked about the War … My Uncle Jack actually worked on the Manhattan Project.”
It’s hard to feel sorry for a guy who has worked so hard on preserving the stories of deserving. In fact, you have to envy him when you read about his adventures.
Gray’s film travels have taken him to Guadalcanal, Corregidor, Bataan, Manila, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, the Russell Islands, Banika, Pearl Harbor, Normandy, France (11 times), Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg (twice), Poland, the Czech Republic, and Germany (twice).
Before getting behind the camera, Gray worked in television sports and news for over 15 years in several states, including Michigan, Washington State, Florida, New York, and Rhode Island. He was with Channel 10 from 2000 to 2004. He has a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island.
Gray may worry about getting to everybody who has a story before they’re gone, but he thinks he’s got enough material to keep him busy for a long, long time.
“Since we started this in 2006, we have done well over 300 interviews, many of which haven’t seen the light of day,” said Gray, meaning himself and Jim Karpeichek, his photographer and fellow Channel 10 veteran. “So we’ve got plenty to work with.”
“Remember Pearl Harbor” is an 84-minute documentary narrated by Hollywood icon Tom Selleck. The film will make its official premiere on Sunday, Dec. 4 at Pearl Harbor as part of the official 75th anniversary ceremonies in Hawaii, then air on more than 110 PBS stations nationally. Ticket sales benefit the World War II Foundation.
“While we are recognizing the veterans of World War II specifically and marking the date of America’s entry into WWII, this is an event to say thank you to all veterans who have served,” Gray said. “They are a special group of people.”
Gray said his was the first film allowed to fly a drone over the Arizona. He said you can clearly see the front and rear of the ship, and you can see the oil slick that has been slowly leaking from it for the last 75 years. The slick poses a problem for its caretakers, the tanks are getting older and eventually, all that oil will have to go somewhere. Not as easily dealt with as you may think. People are reluctant to disturb the ship.
You have to remember that it is also the resting place for 1,100 sailors.
Remember Pearl Harbor.