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A Global Contest: World War II

Daniel Lenihan, Garry Cummins, James Delgado, David Clark, and Lu Ann De Cunzo


All the survivors of the Battle of Little Big Horn have died, but thousands of Americans alive today saw military action in World War II. Thousands upon thousands more did not serve in the military, but lived through the second “war to end all wars” from 1941 to 1945, and will never forget the experience. Governments around the world committed military personnel and huge quantities of supplies and equipment to this conflict. World War II sites dot the landscape. Incredibly, over 77,000 World War II military personnel who participated in this global conflict are still “missing in action.”

Growing cities, accidental discoveries, and a refusal to forget have led archaeologists to many of the sites of this global contest. One such discovery occurred in October 1992. A B-17 bomber crash site was accidentally uncovered in a dense, highland mountain forest, over 8,300 feet above sea level in Papua New Guinea. Inspection revealed extensive plane wreckage, remains of the flight crew, and personal flight gear. A pilot’s name bracelet matched a crewmember from a B-17F, number 41-24552. This plane, while returning from a successful bombing mission over Lae, Papua New Guinea on 15 September 1943, disappeared without a trace. In 1993, the U. S. Army Central Identification Laboratory at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii planned an archaeological survey and excavation of the wreck site. Ironically, archaeologists completed the project almost fifty years after the plane was declared “missing in action.”

Across the country, out in the Pacific at Pearl Harbor, the Navy has teamed with the National Park Service (NPS) to preserve another compelling scar on the global landscape of World War II. On 7 December 1941, the Imperial Japanese fleet attacked U.S. installations on O`ahu island in Hawaii. Even before bombs fell on Pearl Harbor that Sunday morning, many Americans knew that they would soon be at war with Japan. What was unexpected was the seemingly apocalyptic nature of the sneak attack. It emblazoned itself in the minds of millions of Americans, a passionate, inflamed response alive even today, spanning generations. The single most powerful image of the Pearl Harbor attack was the twisted, smoking metal and mast of the USS Arizona. When it sank, it became the tomb of more than eleven hundred sailors and marines.

Naval memorial, war grave, and on occasion, still the burial site for survivors of the attack, the Arizona signifies tragedy, triumph, and heroism. The ship and its harbor symbolize the social trauma of war, and remind us of the need for vigilance and preparedness, an object lesson for those who vow “never again.” Archaeologists work with pride to ensure Pearl Harbor will continue to serve as a shrine and place of remembrance for Americans and visitors from around the world.

About the Contributors:

Daniel J. Lenihan is an underwater archaeologist with the National Park Service Submerged Resources Center in Santa Fe.

Gary Cummins is Manager of the U. S. National Park Service's Harpers Ferry Center.

James P. Delgado is Executive Director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.

David Clark is Lecturer in Anthropology at Catholic University.

Lu Ann De Cunzo is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Delaware.

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