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The History Behind the Remembering Pearl Harbor Virtual Reality Experience

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As the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor approaches its 75th anniversary, the new experience from LIFE VR—Time Inc.’s virtual-reality brand—allows users to revisit that infamous day through the experience of Lt. Jim Downing, who is now the second-oldest known American veteran to have survived the day. So, when it came to telling the story truthfully, Downing himself was clearly the most important source for Remembering Pearl Harbor. The 103-year-old, who was interviewed at his home in Colorado Springs, Colo., shared his remembrances of the day and what came after.

But when it came to creating the world in which Downing’s recollections would be brought to life, that took some help filling in the gaps.

In order to ensure that the 1941 home in the experience was accurate, LIFE VR worked with the National WWII Museum in New Orleans as an official resource partner. As the museum is planning a major exhibition about the home front—The Arsenal of Democracy: The Herman and George Brown Salute to the Home Front, which will open in 2017—curators were able to provide photographic references for the objects that populate the room, from kitchen necessities to technology like the radio. (Further reference material for the experience came from the Library of Congress and the LIFE Picture Collection, among other sources.)

Learning about the home front is a key component of studying World War II, says Robert Citino, Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Historian at the National WWII Museum. The upcoming exhibition will remind visitors of something that’s highlighted by Lt. Downing’s remembrance of that day, that “World War II was not simply a war fought by armies but a war fought by entire peoples,” he says, “and in our case by the entire American nation.”

That’s something that’s particularly important to understand when it comes to Pearl Harbor, the anniversary of which will be marked by the museum with a full slate of events, ranging from “electronic field trips” for students to a symposium in Hawaii. After all, Citino says, the study of history is a way to better understand how we got to the present, and much of the way the world is today—for example, the balance of international power in the Pacific—is still “defined” by Pearl Harbor and what came after it.

“Pearl Harbor made America what it is today, whether you come at that as a positive or a negative,” Citino says. “When you remember Pearl Harbor, you remember the day that not only the war changed and the Pacific changed but the day America changed in a dramatic way.”

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That’s an idea echoed by Craig Nelson, who served as historical adviser on Remembering Pearl Harbor: “It’s 75 years later and we’re still living under the shadow of Pearl Harbor.”

Nelson says that the weeks he has spent this autumn touring the country with his new book Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness have given him a new window into what Americans know about what happened on Pearl Harbor. And, though the attack that launched the U.S. into World War II is one of the best-known events of modern American history, he has found that the scale of the day’s importance can sometimes obscure the personal stories that intersect with the world-historical event. Amid more than 2,000 American deaths that were caused that day, one person’s survival or lack thereof can be hard to focus on. But, he says, hearing and telling those stories matters.

Particularly when those stories are as personal as Lt. Downing’s is. And, as the event itself moves further into the past, finding new ways—”either a storyteller or a technology”—to help people understand is crucial, Nelson says.

“By talking about the personal stories of people who survived, these human stories, that changes everyone’s perspective about this,” he says. “People would like to know the truth rather than the mythology.”

Remembering Pearl Harbor will be available exclusively on Viveport for the HTC Vive beginning Thursday, and a 360° trailer can be viewed in the LIFE VR app for iOS and Android. A full-length 360° edition of the experience will be released in the LIFE VR app later this month.

Experience Remembering Pearl Harbor on an HTC Vive headset at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., from Dec. 5-11, and at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York City on Dec. 6 and 7.

Correction, April 2, 2019

An image of a calendar that appears in the video that accompanies this story misstates the day of the week for Dec. 8, 1941. It was a Monday, not a Sunday.

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com