By Helena Touhey/ Features Editor-
A new documentary film shares the stories of people who remember the day that has lived in infamy for 75 years.
“Remember Pearl Harbor” is the latest film produced by the Kingston-based World War II Foundation, run by South County native Tim Gray. The 84-minute film is narrated by Tom Selleck and features interviews from more than 35 World War II veterans and Hawaiian citizens.
A sneak peek of the film will be held Sunday at 1 p.m. at Veterans Memorial Auditorium in Providence. That showing is being held in honor of USS Arizona survivor Raymond Haerry, who died recently and was a resident of West Warwick; Haerry was interviewed for the film last winter. Admission to the film is free for all veterans and military personnel with proper ID. Tickets for other patrons cost $13 at the door, and help support the foundation. The Vets Auditorium seats about 1,500 people, and Gray is encouraging people to reserve tickets in advance.
The film will have its official premiere Dec. 4 in Hawaii at WWII Hangar 79 on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. More than 1,100 tickets have already been sold for that showing.
Gray said he began working on the film about a year ago – his 17th documentary – and planned for its release to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day on Dec. 7. He said it took about 6-7 months to compile all of the interviews needed for the project, and that all of the veterans and their accounts were new additions to the foundation’s archives.
Last February, a brief ran in The Independent and other papers that the foundation was looking to conduct interviews with area WWII veterans, survivors and those who helped with the war effort from 1941-1945. Those interested were invited to meet at Varnum Armory in East Greenwich, and share their personal stories of what they did during the war.
About 16 or 17 people interviewed on that day are featured in the beginning of “Remember Pearl Harbor,” sharing memories from the infamous day of Dec. 7, 1941. Each was asked: What do you remember? Where were you when you heard?
The answers, Gray said, “Give you a snapshot of Americana in America on Dec. 7, 1941.” Of those interviewed, some were out ice skating, others were home listening to the radio, some were playing ball. “[It’s a] whole snapshot of what America was like on that day and how they got the word,” he said.
John O’Hara, a veteran who resides in Narragansett, is among the Rhode Islanders who shared their stories of where they were that day. For O’Hara, the news spurred him and his friends to enlist together. The same was true for millions of men across the country who went to the nearest recruiting centers and joined the war effort. These are the stories Gray uses to set up the film, which is woven together with the memories of the people who lived through the war.
Because there are so many Rhode Islanders involved in the project, Gray is especially happy to be able to host a local preview. “[The foundation is] based in Rhode Island, so any time we can give Rhode Islanders a taste of what we do globally, anytime we can loop the Rhode Island community and give them a little preview of what we’re doing, we love to do that,” he said.
A lot of outreach also was used to locate and reach veterans outside of this area, Gray said. Freelance film crews were used to meet with people in Colorado, California and Hawaii, most of them veterans in their 90s. Everyone interviewed was able to add something to the project and offer a unique story, Gray said.
Footage of the interviews with veterans is mixed with photos of them when they were younger, archival footage of the actual attack and events of that day, as well as recent footage from Pearl Harbor. A few years ago, Gray was granted permission to take the first drone footage of the USS Arizona, which was captured by a film crew from Hawaii.
The remains of the USS Arizona make for a “pretty amazing place,” he said. “[The] USS Arizona was sunk 75 years ago, [and] the ship is still leaking oil. People can still see the oil rising from the ship today, [which is] pretty emotional, and pretty incredible.”
One of the people interviewed for the film was a woman who was 6 years old on Dec. 7, 1941, and a resident of the Navy housing at Pearl Harbor, where her father worked at the Naval shipyard. In her interview, she recalls watching the Japanese planes overhead, and what that experience was like from the point of view of a child.
“[She] didn’t know what the heck was going on, or what war was,” Gray said. “Her story is probably one of the more incredible stories in the whole film.”
The film also includes a previously filmed interview with Mitsuo Fuchida, the leader of the Japanese air attack. Gray said he wanted to include Fuchida’s story so as to give some Japanese perspective in the film.
“The memories of these people, of that day, of being there,” are the spine and substance of the film, said Gray. “[It’s] not a film on why, or strategy of the attack, [it’s] more on personal memories of the people. We don’t get into too much strategy because then you lose the personal stories.” Like previous films made by the foundation, “Remember Pearl Harbor” focuses on the “micro rather than the macro – the smaller picture.”
“That’s really all that’s left” to be highlighted, said Gray. “The war has been dissected 400 ways to Tuesday. But it’s the personal stories that are new, that haven’t been heard, that we try to focus on in every film.”
“Remember Pearl Harbor” is narrated by Selleck, an actor known for the ’80s TV series “Magnum P.I.” and, more recently, “Blue Bloods.”
“When I decided I wanted to do this film, the person I thought of was Tom Selleck to narrate it,” Gray said, noting his connection to Hawaii from filming “Magnum P.I.,” and the fact that he served in the military as a National Guard member. Gray said he reached out to Selleck’s PR people, and that they “came back pretty much right away and said he’d love to do it.”
Gray sent the script he wrote to Selleck, who recorded it in a studio in California over two days. Selleck was invited to the official release in Hawaii but won’t be able to attend because of a work conflict, Gray said.
The film will air on 125 PBS stations nationwide, beginning at the end of the month. The foundation has a history of airing its documentaries on public television, and the films usually air 2-3 times a year across the country. The foundation’s films have ranked in the top 5 percent of films requested on PBS, Gray said.
“Which is great,” he said. “[It] means people still have an interest in WWII, which is good.”
“Remember Pearl Harbor” has already received an Award of Excellence from Indie Fest, and Gray appreciates the recognition for what he does, especially since he’s the main man behind the foundation. He left a 15-year career as a sportscaster to create the organization, which he said he’d wanted to do since he was a kid; he released his first WWII documentary in 2006. In addition to this film, he has four more films in the works and scheduled to be released in the next four years.
Gray is determined to collect as many stories from WWII veterans as he can, and to present them in a way that is interesting for all. “They’re just stories that should never go away,” he said.
For more information about the foundation, visit wwiifoundation.org.