Daniel Martinez: Historian Reveals Real Stories of Pearl Harbor

As chief historian at the USS Arizona Memorial in Honolulu, Daniel Martinez (Class of ’81, B.A., history) oversees the interpretation of the attack by the Japanese that ignited United States involvement in World War II. As such, the Los Angeles native often has an opportunity to uncover layers of lost history and personal testimony that complete the story.

USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor

“One of the great myths about Pearl Harbor is that it was solely an attack on [the base],” says Martinez. “Rather, it was a comprehensive strike on all military installations, primarily the airfields throughout the island. In order for the Japanese attack to be successful, they had to take out our airfields so that we couldn’t respond.”

Martinez says that another seldom recognized aspect of the story is the number of dead and wounded in the areas surrounding the attack, beyond the military facilities.

“The civilian population was affected in Honolulu; 49 were killed,” he says. “Many were affected by friendly fire. And of course, you had airmen and pilots killed at the airfield. That adds to the 2,390 that made up the casualties for that day.”

In addition to several events leading up to the 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks on Dec. 7, Martinez is organizing a 70th Anniversary Pearl Harbor Attack Symposium on Dec. 2-5 at the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument located at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center. The already sold-out event will include a premier of the History Channel’s documentary, “Pearl Harbor: 24 Hours After,” and tours of the attack sites and historic boats. Subsequent commemorative events will be held on Dec. 7-8 at the Monument and related sites.

In addition to renowned historians and authors from Japan and the United States, Martinez has invited a number of military and civilians survivors of the attacks to share their experiences at the Symposium. The value he attaches to such personal histories stems from his experience as an undergraduate at CSU Dominguez Hills when he interviewed his maternal grandfather about the events of Dec. 7, 1941 for a course on oral histories taught by Judson Grenier, emeritus professor of history.

“My grandfather, Harlan Gray, was a miner and a Navy federal worker,” says Martinez. “He was a foreman for the famous Red Hill project, which were underground storage tanks for fuel that are still used today. That morning, he was just getting off work at Pearl Harbor.

“It was normal for the foreman to meet the foreman coming on the next shift to talk about what had transpired the day before. It was during those discussions that the planes flew over my grandfather’s head at 100 feet. Those were the torpedo planes headed for Battleship Row. At first, they thought it was a drill. Then when the explosion occurred and the insignia of Japan was noted on the aircraft, my grandfather said something to the effect that ‘It’s war!’ yelling to his workers as they began to take cover.”

Martinez recalls that his grandfather interrupted the interview several times, as overcome with emotion, he had to step away for a few minutes.

“My grandfather survived but witnessed this horrifying thing, the explosion of the USS Arizona,” says Martinez. “The workers were kept on duty. When the raid, which lasted two hours, was over, they had the unenviable job to go out on boats to retrieve the dead out of the water. Those bodies were laid out on a narrow pier called Aiea Landing to be identified. He said… that he never got over how young the faces were.

“During that interview, my grandfather got up and walked away from the recording four times, and I couldn’t understand why that was happening,” says Martinez. “Later when I became a historian for the National Park Service at the USS Arizona Memorial, that also occurred with other [interviewees]. The experience of recording [these experiences] showed what pain was in their hearts and how difficult it was to recall these memories. I found out that my grandfather had never been asked in detail what happened. And, that was true of the [survivors] that I would interview. I soon learned that these oral histories were very private moments and generally not disclosed to family members. I recall the emotions of grown men and women who were in their 60s, weeping.”

Martinez’s family history in the midst of WWII also extends to his father’s side. He says that his parents met in Lone Pine, Calif., where Gray had sent his family in order to protect them from the dangers of the war in Hawaii; he joined them after the Red Hill project was completed in 1944.

“My father lived in a barrio called Owenyo, and he went to Lone Pine High School,” says Martinez. “Just 13 miles away was Manzanar. My father remembers going to look at the camp with his friends, all Mexican kids, he was about 14 at the time. The guards pointed their bayonets at them. They never forgot that. They saw all these Japanese American people behind the barbed wire; they couldn’t understand what that was.”

Martinez says that Donald Hata and Howard Holter, now emeritus professors of history, advised him to minor in communications and that his education prepared him with the ability to gather and present information that provides an ever-evolving history of Pearl Harbor and related sites. He has been interviewed and guided viewers through numerous programs the History Channel, the Military Channel, the Travel Channel, and even the Food Network. Martinez is featured in “Pearl Harbor: 24 Hours After,” which will air nationally on Dec. 7, and will will also appear on “Dan Rather Reports on Dec. 6.

“Having my minor in communications… enabled me to have the skill sets to not only speak but also demonstrate history,” says Martinez, who hosted the Discovery Channel’s “Unsolved History” from 2005 to 2005.

Martinez began his career with the National Park Service while still attending CSU Dominguez Hills, as a seasonal park ranger at the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument in Crow Agency, Mont. When a position opened up at the USS Arizona Memorial in 1985, he jumped at the opportunity. He started out as a law enforcement ranger/interpreter.

“The only way I was going to get into the National Park Service [permanently] was to be versatile,” says Martinez. “I started at the Memorial as a law enforcement ranger/interpreter for four years. Then I became the interpretive specialist and in 1989, I became the first historian. The position was created then, two years prior to the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.”

Martinez says that he was “very, very lucky to enroll at Dominguez Hills.” Having completed his associate of arts degree at El Camino College, the Los Angeles native immediately began working in a business-related field. However, he soon realized that higher education would be more fulfilling and returned to college at 27.

“I think I grew up and realized that my future was to continue my education,” he says. “The professors in the history department were extraordinary people. I was very fortunate to have key advisors like Dr. Hata, Dr. Holter, and Dr. Grenier. Those three individuals shaped my education and gave me the tools to be successful and at least, significant in my field. They went beyond being professors. They counseled, they criticized, they encouraged. They treated not only me but my fellow students like that, and gave us an opportunity to succeed. I got a private education at a public university.”


  1. James Smith says:

    The Pearl Harbor documentary was from another world; and I don’t mean it as a compliment. For Mr Martinez, it is obvious that he takes the US view; but what IS the US view. Let me tell you.

    5 December 41. At Moscow, Zhukov hits Nazis so hard, they actually run away and 16,000
    die in a single night; NEVER have Hitler’s men retreated. He takes over a disaster. Dozens of US books credit this first strike.*

    11 December 41. Hitler declares war on the US. Ernest King, Chief of Intelligence tells Roosevelt,
    “Mr President, I think our problem is Japan. The Russians will do nine-tenths of the job with Hitler” (According to US Colonel David Glantz, the Reds killed 80%; King was pretty close)

    May 42. Roosevelt writes to Gen Douglas Macarthur; ‘The Russian Armies are killing more Axis personnel and destroying more Axis material than all 25 United Nations put together’

    46 Nuremberg. US journalist asks Keitel when was the War lost? Keitel* says “Moscow”

    Andrew Nagorski prints that Hitler had already said “Everything I undertake is directed against the Russians” before the War began. This in a book printed in New York.

    So, what is the US view? God Bless the Heroes of Pearl Harbor and all credit; BUT don’t alter History. James Smith

  2. alan l. beaverson says:

    I have photos and related info on pre ww11 U.S.S. ARIZONA if someone from the national park services would like to contact me. my great uncle was a life time enlisted man on that and other u.s. ships of that era.

  3. David J. Wolny says:

    I had the honor to have Ranger Martinez as our tour guide at the Little Bighorn Battlefield at which time I was given such an outstanding perspective of the battle and the timeline of events, that it made me look at the battle in a different light. Ranger Martinez motivated me to research the Battle of the Little Bighorn for more details along with several other historical sites. I hope I get to opportunity to meet Ranger Martinez again at Pearl Harbor and visit with such an outstanding historian. My uncle was killed on Wake Island so I was wondering if that Isalnd is part of the Pacific National Park System? I just want to thank Ranger Martinez for inspiring me to appreciate history and to look at the details and perspectives of both sides.

  4. I thought the 70 year memorial was outstanding! At 84, I just missed being in WW 2.

    One of the items that does not have much emphasis was the people such as me who had schoolmates disappear in the months after Pearl Harbor.

    The president of my freshman class did not return one Monday and the answer to many questions as to what happened was “although the individuals themselves were not being questioned as to their loyalty, the possibility remained that relatives of those in the US could be used to coerce release of information, or sabotage, or other warlike activities and the actions were worth the risk of interring people incorrectly.”

    My particular regret is that reparations were not undertaken until most of these people were dead. Great presentation!!

  5. Robert E Smith says:

    One of my mother’s brothers, was at Scholfield Barracks from November 1941, for a 45 day trip with the National Guard. Well, he returned about 4 years later, minus a hospital stay or two in Hawaii. My father was in Long Island, New York at the time, he enlisted in the Navy and served with a Patrol Topedo Boat Squardron, but in the West Indies, no action, he was lucky. My step-father served with the 423rd Bomber Squadron (Heavy – B17Gs), 306th Bomber Group, 8th US Army Air Corps, Europe. Wars are very dangerous. Bob

    I liked this article, thanks Joanie. bob

  6. David Churchman says:

    I was lucky enough to attend the week-long commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Pear Harbor attack, which began with a talk by then President Bush, the youngest navy pilot of WWII. It was an incredible event, with survivors of all ages from both sides speaking at session after session, including the two surviving Medal of Honor recipients and numerous well-known historians of that Day. I particularly remember a Japanese pilot who had bombed the battleship Oklahoma chatting during one of the social events with the last American to get off that ship alive. I still have the program. I am sorry not to have known about the 70th anniversary commemoration, which I am sure will be well worth attending. Thanks, Danny, and good luck with the upcoming event.

Speak Your Mind