Pearl Harbor show called insensitive

Re-enactment: Plans for a mock attack on the Kentucky Derby Festival by planes in World War II Japanese colors are criticized as racially offensive.

April 17, 1999|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Pearl Harbor is 4,000 miles away and its day of infamy nearly 60 years past. But this year's festive buildup to the Kentucky Derby will include, amid the traditional steamboat races and free concerts, a fiery re-enactment of that American military disaster.

That has rankled some locals, who find the event out of place in a day set aside for family fun.

Especially perplexed are representatives of a flourishing Asian population lured here as part of the state's decade-old strategy to attract Japanese investment.

Today's kickoff of the Kentucky Derby Festival, a much-anticipated bash that draws a half-million revelers to this city's waterfront, will include a dozen surplus warplanes painted to resemble Japanese Zeros and torpedo bombers.

They will swoop in low over the muddy Ohio River and conduct mock dogfights and strafing runs, punctuated by fireworks launched from barges.

It's a popular show, and one performed with minimal controversy about a dozen times a year by the volunteer Confederate Air Force at county fairs and air shows around the country.

But here, the re-creation of a Japanese sneak attack that killed 2,400 American service members and dragged the country into World War II has touched off a bitter debate.

Veterans groups applauded the inclusion of "living history" in the show, arguing that it is a good way to pay tribute to those who died Dec. 7, 1941, at the U.S. naval outpost in Hawaii.

But state economic development officials, the people largely responsible for luring $6.9 billion in Japanese investment, accounting for 35,500 jobs, called festival organizers to complain.

So did Toyota, which has its biggest U.S. investment in a factory in Georgetown, about an hour's drive east of Louisville.

"Our concerns were never about a re-enactment of history, but rather the misunderstandings such a performance might create," Toyota spokesman Jim Wiseman said.

All 12 members of the city's Board of Aldermen signed a letter begging festival organizers to reconsider. The "racial and nationalistic overtones of the Pearl Harbor bombing hardly represents what the Kentucky Derby Festival stands for," the board wrote.

Tina Ward-Pugh, a community activist and freshman member of the Board of Aldermen, was the first to sign. She said she wouldn't mind the Pearl Harbor re-enactment if it were part of a military air show. But not during a community-wide celebration, she said.

"Every day, people in this world live with bombs and destruction as a part of their daily life, and for us to re-create that for our entertainment is unthinkable," Ward-Pugh said.

Surprised by opposition

Michael E. Berry, president of the Kentucky Derby Festival Inc., a politically well-connected nonprofit that operates independently of the horse race and its track, Churchill Downs, said he was shocked by the reaction.

The air show, called "Tora! Tora! Tora!" for the radio attack signal used by the Japanese pilots, has been performed twice in recent years in Indiana, just over the Ohio River, without a problem.

Besides, he said, the Derby Festival's opening day "Thunder Over Louisville" production -- for which Tora! is scheduled -- has almost always featured a military-themed air show. Stealth bombers, B-17s, even a replica of the Red Baron's triplane have flown with only scattered complaints.

It's hard to put on an air show without fighters and bombers, Berry said.

"Until we can get UPS, Delta and American Airlines to do rollovers over the Ohio River, there will always be a military component," he said.

The Pearl Harbor re-enactment represents only 15 minutes of the seven-hour day of events, which ends with what organizers say is the largest annual fireworks show in the country.

Berry said he read the script the announcers read during the show and is convinced it is both tasteful and educational.

"It is a tribute to those who lost their lives: Americans, Japanese and Polynesians," he said.

He said he felt blindsided by the Board of Aldermen's letter, which was drafted and sent before he had a chance to explain. He was even more angered by Ward-Pugh's offhand suggestion, in a television interview, that the event's permits could be revoked.

But the festival's response made matters worse: It asked the public to phone the festival offices, where callers reported being given a choice of whether to cancel the whole day's events or go ahead with the show. Berry said 85 percent backed the show.

Ward-Pugh said the Board of Aldermen merely wanted the Tora! element excised, not the whole day scuttled.

"The perception was the festival people were acting like children, threatening to take their ball and go home," she said.

Asked specifically about Tora!, respondents to a call-in poll conducted by the Louisville Courier-Journal were evenly divided.

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