Although he was an eyewitness to the attacks on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, military veteran Robert Kinzler doesn't consider himself a hero. He defers that title to the over 1,000 American soldiers who were killed in the bombings that led to the United States' involvement in World War II over 60 years ago.
"They are the heroes, young men who never had a chance in life, who gave us a chance to have freedom," Kinzler told a captive audience of over 60 seventh graders at Key Middle School on Thursday, April 7. Through the latest technology, Kinzler was able to spin his first-hand account of Pearl Harbor to the students over a video screen only seconds after he spoke the words nearly 5,000 miles away.
It was part of the free Witness To History Pearl video teleconferencing program that Key participated in for four days through a collaboration with the USS Arizona Memorial Museum Foundation, located in Hawaii.
John Christensen, for one, came away from the 45-minute conference impressed.
"It was amazing that they could get through that … and get on with their lives," said John, a seventh grader.
OVER THE four days, April 5, 7, 8 and 12, over 250 seventh graders took part in four separate teleconferences which featured a half dozen veterans of Pearl Harbor, many of whom now volunteer for the National Park Service at the USS Arizona Memorial in Hawaii.
"I think this really brings the experience of Pearl Harbor back to them and gives them a sense of what it's like to have been there," said Patti Winch, Social Studies department chair at Key. "There's nothing like hearing the story of someone who was there."
Winch traveled to Hawaii in the summer of 2004 through a National Endowment for the Humanities workshop program, where she toured the historic sites related to Pearl Harbor, and also heard of the Witness to History conference opportunities. Knowing the advanced technological capabilities of Fairfax County's school system, she convinced Key principal Sharon Eisenberg to go for it.
"Book knowledge is one thing, but in education we look to make connections, and we felt this was a great way to have our students connect with the history they read about," said Eisenberg.
FCPS ALREADY owned all the equipment needed to make the program happen, including the high-priced Tandberg system, that would allow the voice and audio feed from Key to be converted into digital form and sent — via FCPS' Nancy F. Sprague Technology Center — across the Pacific to Hawaii.
"It's an idea whose time is coming," said David Morgan, Key's Technology Support Specialist, about the videoconferencing capabilities. Already, the technology is used to beam math classes at Mantua Elementary in Fairfax to be broadcast over a cable network.
In the case of Key, the technology allowed Kinzler and Herb Weatherwax, another Pearl Harbor veteran to each share 20-minute tales of their experiences on that fateful day in 1941. Following their time, the students had 10 minutes to ask questions that they had prepared. Several of the students asked questions about the parallels between Pearl Harbor and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Sylvia Boateng, a seventh grader, said she appreciated hearing sensory details about the bombings.
"All they could see was black smoke, they couldn't see anything," she said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a thing I'll never forget."
Key is the first school in Virginia to participate in the Witness to History program with Pearl Harbor, and Winch said she hopes the program continues annually.
"A huge concern is that we're losing a 1,000 WWII veterans a day because of their age," she said. "These veterans are over 80 years old, and it's very important for our kids to hear their stories first hand, to have personal accounts of what's happened."