The world is on the verge of losing the last living links to the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, but one man has dedicated his life to ensuring the memory of that “day of infamy” will never be extinguished.
Daniel Martinez, the chief historian of the national memorial at Pearl Harbor, has spent about 30 years interviewing the survivors and witnesses of the attacks, collecting their stories and helping many of them fulfill a dying wish: to be interred with their shipmates in the underwater grave of the USS Arizona. There are now only nine survivors from the USS Arizona still alive, most of whom are expecting to make the ship their final resting place.
“It haunts me because that family entrusts us to take those ashes of that family member and with the full burial rights of the military protocols, place them back in the ship,” Martinez told “Politics Confidential” of leading the ceremonies in which the veterans’ ashes are placed within the sunken ship.
“I see a tremendous amount of patriotism and sacrifice on the part of that family but that memory will be here as long as America lives,” he added.
Of the 1,178 officers of the ship that were killed when an explosion sank the ship, Martinez said 900 are still “serving the ship” -- entombed within the vessel that sits beneath the memorial on the harbor floor.
He recalled the most recent interment ceremony in December for USS Arizona survivor Chief Warrant Officer Edward Wentzlaff.
“It was just one of those moments when you almost have to pinch yourself,” he said. “I got to lead that ceremony with the Navy and we took Edward home … back with his shipmates.”
Over the course of his career’s work preserving the history of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Martinez has also recorded the oral histories of survivors and witnesses.
“These personal stories they share with us, the oral historians, for the first time, and when we get these oral histories back to the families and they watch them, they say, he never told us that or she never told us that,” Martinez said.
One of the first oral histories he ever collected, and one of his most difficult, Martinez said, was that of his grandfather, who was a witness to the attack on Pearl Harbor and felt the concussion from the explosion of the USS Arizona from a quarter-mile away.
“I was in college and I was just taking my first oral history class and I thought, well, my grandfather was at Pearl Harbor, I'll do the interview,” he said. “He got up and he left the interview table four times and he said, ‘Hey, that's it, that's it.’ … What I didn't realize was back then, what I found out later when I came here and started doing more interviews, is I was taking his personal memory and in a way exposing it.”
For more of the interview with Martinez, including why the United States needs to remember Pearl Harbor today, check out this episode of “Politics Confidential.”
ABC News’ Stephanie Smith, Luis Martinez, Alexandra Dukakis, Gary Westphalen and Emily Karl contributed to this episode.
Bill Paris and Scott Culbertson assisted in the production of this episode.