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Historian: Pearl Harbor was turning point in America's place in the world

Tom Clark, history teacher at Lake Central High School, collects war artifacts. He has cases that act like museum display cases with pictures, letters, birth certificates and more of soldiers from past conflicts, especially Word War II.

ST. JOHN — Richmond Blieffort was one of 1,177 men who died 75 years ago when the U.S.S. Arizona was bombed and sank in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

Imagine, decades later, finding the Washington sailor's Purple Heart on eBay.

It happens more often than most people would expect, said Lake Central Elementary School history teacher Tom Clark.

Clark, a collector of militaria, is also a collector of stories of men and women who have served and fought, lived and died in the many wars of which the U.S. has been involved.

Pearl Harbor, however, holds a special place in Clark's heart.

"Part of it is collecting, but this was a monumental event. it is the day that got us into the war," Clark said. "It was a huge turning point in American history, in American politics and in our involvement in the world. It was the incident that led us to being a superpower."

Clark has collected five Purple Hearts from men killed that day. He's collected letters the men sent back home. He's also collected a silver tray, pots and spoons that were recovered from the Arizona and has two pieces of 5-inch guns that were sliced and then pieces sent to families.

Most of the items were purchased from eBay, some from family members, some from strangers.

Clark said people have picked up the materials at garage or estate sales with the intent to resell. He contacts the families from which he purchases items, and most tell him there is no one left in their families who care about the items. But, he said, the families are happy he purchases them to share with his class because the sailor will continue to live on.

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Clark has also visited the memorial in Hawaii several times.

"The theater blows you away. Then you get on a launch to go to the Arizona memorial, which straddles over the ship and a wall with the names of all those killed. You look at this, and you are just awed," said Clark.

Pearl Harbor is that generation's 9/11, said Clark, drawing parallels between the two events, each "awakening a sleeping giant" who fought back.

Clark's students are also involved. They are currently researching each of those who died aboard the Arizona, he said, using, Find-a-Grave and the National Archives, among other resources.

He also shows them the militaria which is stacked around his classroom. Better than statistics or a paragraph in a history book, the letters, the pictures, the pieces left behind that day tell the story, said Clark.

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Porter County Reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for nearly years, including 23 years with The Times. She's a native of Merrillville, but has lived in Portage for 39 years. She covers municipal and school government in Porter County.