Japanese Zeros rained bombs on Pearl Harbor on Saturday, and thousands of Americans applauded and cheered.
In 10 intense minutes, the eight propeller-driven airplanes crisscrossed the area at the water's edge, raking sand and shore with machine-gun attacks that sent baseball-playing soldiers diving for cover, or running for anti-aircraft guns.
Flying so low that inscriptions on the fuselages were easily legible, the planes dropped bombs on two piers projecting into the water, touching off fireballs hot enough to be felt several hundred yards away. The eardrum-popping level of the noise from the planes, the weapons and the brass shell casings clattering to the tile walkway from the anti-aircraft guns was loud enough to drown out even the mighty Kate Smith as she belted out "God Bless America" on the public-address system.
But this scene wasn't quite what you might think. The airplanes came from Midland, Texas, instead of Tokyo, and the lethal-looking bombs and depth charges were a pyrotechnic display set off in Lake Pontchartrain, on the other side of the levee from the University of New Orleans Technology Park.
The restaging of the Pearl Harbor attack, minus the massive ships that the Japanese damaged and sank, was the centerpiece of a day full of re-enactments of World War II events; others included beach stormings in authentic landing craft and a dramatization of the Marine assault on Tarawa. It was part of the celebration of the opening of the National D-Day Museum's Pacific wing.
And even though Pearl Harbor, which happened 60 years ago Friday, was an unmitigated tragedy for the United States that killed thousands of people and pulled the nation into World War II, the pageant's stagers managed to pull off a finale with an inspiring spin: As the narrator told how Pearl Harbor focused American resolve to defeat its enemies, a Zero dropped a bomb that emitted red, white and blue smoke. On the other side of the levee, men in a cherry picker at a construction site waved Old Glory as the crowd erupted into cheers.
While all this was going on at the former site of Pontchartrain Beach Amusement Park, genuine World War II veterans were telling their stories and reuniting with their buddies at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Three ships also were open for tours at French Quarter wharves.
The day ended at the Marriott Hotel with a USO dance, where 1940s dress was encouraged. Tickets cost $70 apiece.
The re-enactments, which were free, unfolded before an audience that set up blankets and lawn chairs on the downslope of the levee and waited quietly for about two hours for a thick, moist fog to clear so the Zeros could take off from Lakefront Airport.
It was a scene full of contrasts: Re-enactors, in authentic gear down to their uniform leggings and boxy Speed Graphic cameras, mingled with spectators who chatted on cell phones and munched on food being sold at non-1940s prices: $2 and $3 for soft drinks and beer, hot dogs, red beans and rice, and jambalaya. While people waited for the Zeros to strafe the beach, they heard -- over and over -- a medley of wartime tunes, ranging from the up-tempo "In the Mood" to the melancholy "I'll Be Seeing You."
In re-enacting battles, someone has to fight the Americans. On Saturday, that duty fell to Jay Sailors of Austin, Texas, who has been portraying Japanese and German soldiers since 1994 without being insulted or assaulted by his audiences."
If no one plays the bad guy, there's not much of a battle," he said chuckling.Sailors strove for authenticity with his uniform, cap and neatly tied leggings, but there was a mistake: The white headband bearing the red Japanese sun and the characters representing "Divine Wind," the kamikaze pilots' motto, was upside down.
Mitsuko Kennair, a Japanese native who lives in New Orleans, pointed it out and set things right.
Being at an event where the Japanese were the villains wasn't too upsetting for Kennair, an American citizen, although she lost an uncle during the war."
It's a part of history," she said, "but I'd like people to know why Japan attacked Pearl Harbor: It was pushing across the Pacific and felt it had to fight."