Raleigh historian explains his 'never-ending quest' to uncover Pearl Harbor's human story

Steve Daniels Image
Wednesday, December 8, 2021
Raleigh historian works to uncover Pearl Harbor history
As the world marks the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a Raleigh historian shares how he has unearthed stories from the past.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor has been the focus of Mike Wenger's work for 45 years.

The Raleigh historian is currently writing his eighth book about the attack.

"It has been the adventure of a lifetime," Wenger told ABC11's Steve Daniels in an interview. "I would never change a thing."

As the world marks the 80th anniversary of the December 7th, 1941 attack that thrust the United States into World War II, Wenger explained how he has unearthed compelling human stories in old military files housed at the National Archives.

"The papers crackle and snap when I open up the files, and it's obvious they have not been looked at since World War II," Wenger said. "To be able to have your eyes laid on that material for the first time is really exciting."

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Some of the files contain love letters, written by men who died in the attack.

"What you learn is particular things about what they were doing in the last days," Wenger said. "You begin to see that these men were preparing for what they knew was coming."

Through interviews with American and Japanese survivors of the attack that killed 2,400 people in Hawaii, Wenger has also learned about the lasting effect of Pearl Harbor.

"That hellish memory of all your best friends and your associates and squadron mates, seeing them dead, that had an impact on them that they would never forget," Wenger explained. "They had constant nightmares about that, for the rest of their lives."

Wenger has also traveled to Japan to interview some of the pilots who attacked Hawaii.

"The gentlemen were very earnest and very eager to help," Wenger said about the veterans of the Japanese military.

Wenger wrote about Japanese pilot Toshio Hashimoto and the emotional reaction he had when he saw Hawaii for the first time from the air.

"He saw this beautiful green landscape," Wenger said. "He said, 'I cannot believe that we have come here to attack and destroy this island.'"

Wenger said reconstructing the attack from the Japanese perspective has been revealing.

"Westerners often do not credit them with having a full range of emotions."

As Wenger continues work on a six-volume series of books published by the Naval Institute Press, he shared the exhilaration he feels on his journey of discovery to fully explain the lasting impact of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

"There is always one more record repository that you haven't gone to," Wenger said. "It is a never-ending quest."