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To remember Pearl Harbor, a debate on restoring a last-of-its-kind military plane

December 5, 2014 at 6:20 PM EST
Seventy-three years ago, an attack on Pearl Harbor catapulted the U.S. into World War II. National Air and Space Museum curator Jeremy Kinney shows off a rare survivor from that day -- a military seaplane -- and explains how specialists agonize over how to keep it in tact.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We want to step back for a moment now.

Sunday marks the 73rd anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack that launched U.S. involvement in World War II.

Tonight, we bring you a rare survivor of that day, an American military plane that is the last of its kind. We tagged along at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, as curator Dr. Jeremy Kinney showed off the seaplane to a volunteer and explained the debate over how to restore it.

DR. JEREMY KINNEY, Smithsonian Air and Space Museum: Most flying boats by the Navy perform the patrol function, and that’s what this airplane did in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

This is a Sikorsky JRS-1 flying boat. And it’s the only artifact in the Air and Space Museum’s collection that was present at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

This is an important artifact in regards to the story of America and December 7, the Pearl Harbor attack. It’s an unarmed airplane. And it was a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. And so this airplane was put into service immediately in response to the Japanese attack.

In many ways, America was the same way. Americans just jumped right into the fight and get into World War II. And so this is an iconic symbol of that first day of the war for the United States. This particular JRS-1 is the sole survivor. There are the S-43s that survived.

But for this Navy version, the JRS, 17 were built, 10 were at Pearl Harbor, this is the sole survivor. But this is the first — one of the first amphibians operated by the U.S. Navy. So, the big gear that you see there that’s been — that’s what it’s sitting on. That’s why it’s able to be here because, because it’s an amphibian airplane, because it has landing gear on it.

If we restore it, then every — everything that’s original is removed pretty much or it’s painted over. So, I mean, this is the original glass, no matter how bad it looks. This is the original paint, no matter how badly chipped and cracked it is, the peeling fabric, which there are ways to repair that.

But it’s the things that curators and specialists and conservators agonize over. That’s a — it’s a big debate in terms of what we want to do with it, because it’s only original once, even though it’s in rough shape.

In the immediate aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, this JRS flew in search of Japanese submarines and the Japanese carrier fleet. And then as the months wore on through 1942, it continued its support mission for Navy fighting, bombing and torpedo squadrons.

This particular JRS flew until 1944 with the U.S. Navy. It went into storage. The Navy kept it as an airplane. It actually performed yeoman’s service with the NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which is now NASA today, as an air dynamics testing platform.

This area is for treatment, whether it’s preservation or restoration, of the museum’s large aircraft artifacts. And it’s here today to show the public of what the condition of the museum’s aircraft are in. It’s slated for restoration in the future. It’s not currently being worked on, but it will be soon.

And so it’s here now to show these people what these airplanes looked like before the staff and technicians of the preservation and restoration unit of the museum get to it.

This is a painting of what the JRS-1 would have looked like on December 7, 1941. This is an airplane that is painted to reflect its support mission. We moved, as a museum, to preservation. And so if you look at this artifact as a preserve — if you want to preserve it, you would essentially leave it as it is, because its history, theoretically, is up to the present, rather than trying to go back to December 7.

Well, you know, its history of this particular artifact is what brought it here. It’s not only an example of what needs to be done to an aircraft in the collection in terms of preservation and restoration, but it also has that stunning Pearl Harbor history, that connection that all Americans can relate to.

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