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Shock, Aftermath of Pearl Harbor Attack Laid Out at US Museum

The battleship USS Arizona sinks after being hit by a Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941.
The battleship USS Arizona sinks after being hit by a Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Dec. 7, 1941.

A telegram telling of the attack on Pearl Harbor and a West Point cadet's letter afterwards seeking advice from his father, General Dwight Eisenhower, are among exhibits at a U.S. museum illustrating the shock and horror that catapulted the United States into World War Two.

The attack on the U.S. naval base in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941, 75 years ago on Wednesday, shook a country that had been so focused on the war in Europe that it had lost sight of the threat posed by Japan, said Kenneth Rendell, director of the Museum of World War Two, outside Boston.

"The whole issue was America not getting into the war in Europe, and part of the reason this attack was so shocking was because everyone was so focused on Europe," said Rendell, a dealer in historic documents who founded the museum in 1999 to house a collection that holds some 500,000 items related to the war.

One never-before-exhibited piece is a letter that West Point Cadet John Eisenhower sent to his father, then-Brigadier General Dwight Eisenhower, the night of the attack after learning that he and his classmates would be graduating early and deploying.

"It seems impossible that the Japs have the audacity to attack us as far east as Hawaii," the letter read. "What can I do to develop myself?"

The attack, launched to destroy the U.S. Pacific fleet and with the aim of keeping the United States out of the war, took 2,390 American lives.

The exhibit shows relics directly from the attack including pieces of downed Japanese planes and the binoculars that had been used on the bridge of the battleship the USS Arizona, which was sunk in the attack.

It also shows the backlash against people of Japanese descent living in the United States.

That side of the war story is told through items including a pin claiming to be a "Jap Hunting License"; an official poster ordering residents of the Los Angeles area who were of Japanese ancestry to register; and a painting by an inmate from an internment camp for Japanese-Americans.

Rendell said he hoped the exhibit illustrated the complexities of a war that is often romanticized in Hollywood movies and television documentaries.

"I think people are yearning for a connection with a time when they believed the country was united," he said during a tour of the museum in Natick, Massachusetts, about 20 miles west of Boston. "I want them to come out of this with an appreciation of the complexity and intensity of this period."

In addition to its extensive collection of documents, the museum's collection includes a U.S. Sherman tank, dozens of uniforms and six of the "Enigma" machines that Germany used for coded transmissions.

Rendell said the museum is in the midst of a fund-raising campaign, aiming to replace its current 10,000 square foot facility, which can display just a fraction of its collection, with a new 65,000 square foot museum.

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