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For Some, History Is A Lived Experience

Ronny Salerno
Walter Oka shares photos from his time as a soldier in Japan after the end of World War II.

While history is visceral for some people who witness it, that isn’t the case for others who weren’t alive when major events like 9/11 occurred.

Walter Oka was 13 in 1941. He'd been shining shoes and doing errands for sailors at Pearl Harbor for about five years by then. His family lived in a house on a nearby bluff overlooking the naval base.

"So on December 7, we heard gunfire and explosions," he said. "So we ran out to the porch and I saw the ships being bombed and explosions with black smoke coming up and what have you."

His family stood on the porch too stunned to run or hide.

"As the plane flew over our house, then I realized the marking in the plane was a rising sun. So I said, 'Oh, the Japanese are attacking.' "

Their house was hit by bullets during a second round of the attack and the FBI later came by their house to ask the Japanese family questions.

Oka never went back to the base to do errands for sailors again.

His older brothers joined the 442nd infantry regiment of the United States Army — a rare group of Japanese soldiers who fought in Europe during World War II. Walter turned 18 in 1946, about a year after the war ended. He joined the Army and served in Japan doing military intelligence, interrogating people.

Walter Oka
Walter Oka poses in his Army uniform while stationed in Japan after World War II.

Oka had kept a methodical record of everything he's experienced over the years. His home in Green Township has stacks of photo albums with carefully labeled black and white pictures inside: his brothers posing next to Nazi monuments after they'd defeated the Germans; his own friends joking around in the barracks in Japan; and landscapes of areas destroyed during the war.

Years later, he was visiting Hawaii when he got a call from his son around 4 a.m., telling him to turn on his TV.

Oka says he didn't compare what he was seeing to when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Very much like that day in 1941, he watched as history unfolded.

Ronny Salerno
Walter Oka keeps photo albums recounting his life experiences, including several from the 1940s when he was stationed in Japan after World War II.

September 11, 2001, was a very different experience for Ron Richards of Cincinnati. He was in Washington D.C. for a conference that Tuesday.

"I had the TV on the Today show and all of a sudden, you saw the plane hit," he said.

Within about 20 minutes, there were reports of another plane hitting the South Tower.

"What everybody said at that point was, 'We're under attack by somebody.' We didn't know what was going on. But the interesting thing was that nobody anticipated those buildings were going to collapse," he said.

TVs were brought into all the main areas of the hotel.

"Everybody was standing there, watching the TV," he said. "And then all of a sudden the ground shook. And the report was (that) the plane — it hit the Pentagon, which was a couple blocks away from where we were."

The hotel was shut down for hours and he saw FBI agents going in and out of it.

Airports were closed and people scrambled to find their way out of Washington, D.C. For $300 the next day, Richards was able to board one of three buses that took people to Chicago, New York and Boston, making stops along the way.

Richards is 83 years old now. He was three when Pearl Harbor happened and lived in Indianapolis through the rest of the war. He grew up just knowing about Pearl Harbor and living in a country struggling through the war.

"There was also rationing and you had to drive on certain days, or you needed gas on certain days; some foods were rationed," he said.

When You Don't Bear Witness

But while history is visceral for people like Oka and Richards, that isn’t the case for some who weren’t alive when major events - like 9/11 - occurred. For both of those men, the memories of those days are fresh — they remember intricate details and what they were feeling when they saw so many people die.

Heidi Perez and Camila Sparks are both seventh graders at Newport High School. For the most part, they know exactly what happened on 9/11.

"People sacrificed their lives, like policemen and firefighters sacrificed, saving people to get them out," Perez said.

They know about the planes hitting the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the field in Pennsylvania. Sparks went to the 9/11 memorial in New York City this summer.

"They had a picture with all the firefighters who had died in 9/11. And I had visited the actual memorial with everyone's names and the big fountain-type thing."

But both are a little sparse on other details.

They didn't know 9/11 is what prompted the longest war in U.S. history, and they didn't know who Osama Bin Laden was.

They say there are memorials for 9/11 every year, but they haven't necessarily been taught about the significance of the terrorist attacks in school. They can't remember learning about Pearl Harbor in school either.

Ron Richards theorizes the difference might be because fewer people were sent to war in 2001. And after the frenzy of patriotism following the attacks died down, most people didn't have to give up day-to-day comforts to keep living their lives.

Walter Oka says he thinks history does start to get glossed over by later generations.

"Well, I tell my kids, and most of them got to go to Hawaii, and they saw Pearl Harbor and they saw where I lived," he says. "And so I passed down that history. The grandchildren are the same way."

But it's hard for them to understand what he experienced, he says, because they just weren't there to witness it themselves.

Jolene Almendarez is the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants who came to San Antonio in the 1960s. She was raised in a military family and has always called the city home. She studied journalism at San Antonio College and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism and Public Communications from the University of Alaska Anchorage. She's been a reporter in San Antonio and Castroville, Texas, and in Syracuse and Ithaca, New York.