Sleeping Giants: Pearl Harbor Survivors Then and Now

An artist’s mission to document and immortalize individual and personal histories of the Attack on Pearl Harbor for future generations.



            Sleeping Giants: Pearl Harbor Survivors Then and Now is a highly ambitious project to document living Pearl Harbor Survivors and their personal experiences during the attack through fine art. The overall goal of this project is to paint two portraits of every living Pearl Harbor Survivor I can personally meet; one portrait of the veteran as they appeared in 1941 in the timeframe of the attack, and one portrait of them contemporarily. Their personal experiences during the attack will be embedded throughout the background.

This project is split into five phases:

  1. Research: The research phase is ongoing throughout the interview phase. I use all available resources to look for and try to make contact with Pearl Harbor Survivors.

  2. Interviews: The interview phase started in December of 2018 with a goal of concluding by March 2020. The planned scope of the project is the entire United States. I have been conducting “patrols” in which I try to interview as many as I can find in a geographical area in one trip.

  3. Preliminary Drawing: Two charcoal portraits will be done of each interviewed Survivor prior to painting. This is to ensure compositional qualities, tonal considerations and an overall feel for the subject. Drawings are not done while with the veteran due to most of them being too old to sit for that long. Drawings are done in the studio using photographs taken in the interview phase. Using my photos is one of the necessities of meeting these veterans in person. Using photos taken by me ensures originality and avoids copyright conflicts. Drawings will be done in charcoal on paper 18x24 inches in size. This phase will conclude by Memorial Day, 2020.

  4. Painting: The painting phase will commence no later than June, 2020, and conclude in time for Pearl Harbor Day 2021. Paintings will be done in oil on canvas, 20x24 inches in size. My artistic approach for both drawing and painting is classical.

  5. Exhibition: I am constantly making efforts to effectively network with galleries and museums such as the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago, the Pearl Harbor National Museum in Hawaii, and the National Museum of the US Navy in Washington, D.C. in an effort to ensure this gets shown around the country.


Planning and Logistics/Finances

            To date, I have interviewed 13 Survivors from Port Angeles, WA to San Diego, CA. I have researched and found more Pearl Harbor Survivors throughout the country. Because time is my greatest enemy, there is a procedure I am trying to follow to organize my efforts and maximize efficiency.

            Immediately, I am trying to organize a patrol through the northern states. The Northern Patrol will sweep UT, MT, ND, IA, WS, MN, and IL, to be conducted and concluded before Thanksgiving. The return route would likely pass down through IL to I-70, in which I would do a sweep of MS, KS, CO southern NV. The reasoning for trying to conduct this so abruptly is to try and accomplish this before winter when those states become unpassable. I do not intend to wait until after winter because there are so few remaining that I’m afraid there will be less before the end of winter. The Final patrol will be the Southern Patrol which I plan to conduct in mid-late January to conclude by mid-February. This route will take the I-10 corridor through AZ, NM southern TX, LA, MS, AL, and GA. Then if time allows, the I-95 Corridor through SC, NC, VA, DC, MD, NJ to MA. The return trip will pass through KY, to I-40, sweeping TN, AR, OK, northern TX, NM and AZ. There are two more Veterans in San Diego and Los Angeles that I would try to contact also if time allows. I feel that with these two patrols, conducted, I will have gained a significant cross section of the nation’s living Pearl Harbor Survivors.

            After the patrols, each veteran’s story and words will be organized in a way that will both work with the artistic concept and resonate with the viewers. During this time, the Preliminary Drawing Phase will be underway as well. The Drawings will be entered into solo gallery shows, as well as group shows and juried competitions in order to incite interest in various communities. Once the Drawings are complete, the Painting Phase will begin. Oil paintings can take a while, each pair taking up to one month.

            Up until now, I have done this using my own funds. I have unfortunately reached the end of my finances and this is no longer possible. I must seek funding through donations and grants to keep this project alive. I have set up both a gofundme and a Facebook fundraiser each set with a goal of $9,000, which has garnered a little over $1,000. To conduct the Northern Patrol, I estimate I will need between $3-5,000. This will cover rental car, hotels, and necessary expenses. The Southern Patrol will most likely need about $7,000 because it will be longer in distance and duration. Other things donations will be set towards are the supplies for the actual artwork such as canvas, paint, charcoal and paper.


Why am I doing this:

            When I was growing up as a young teenager in the early 1990’s I had two mentors, both of whom were Pearl Harbor Survivors. I credit these men with helping develop me into who I am today. They instilled in me a love of country and a deep sense of honor and duty. They inspired me to join the Navy. In turn, the Navy inspires much of my artwork today, so it could be said that those two gentlemen reached out through the decades to help create my work. We as a nation owe these men a debt of remembrance and gratitude. They were literally the shield that took the hit for us on December 7th, 1941.

            As I was attending a Pearl Harbor Remembrance Ceremony in Gridley, I realized that our one Pearl Harbor Veteran, Vere Gardner would probably not make it to the next ceremony (sadly, I was correct). I began to wonder what would happen when they’re all gone. Will we remember them beyond just a paragraph in a chapter about WWII in high school history class? Many of these men up until recently have gone to area schools to talk to children about there experiences. The children in turn see an elderly man. They don’t see the scared kid who had to grow up and become a warrior in the course of two hours on a Sunday morning. Even if you show the younger people a photograph of the veteran as a young man, the photograph is usually black and white, faded and grainy, which kids still associate with “old.”

            The goal of this mission is to break down that barrier. By putting the portrait of the veteran as a young man together with a portrait of him today, in the same color medium and contextualized with their words expressing their experiences, I think it will have a positive psychological impact. It will confront the viewer to ask themselves “what would I do? How would I feel?” It will display visually that these men were young, just like anybody was young. Hopefully a connection will be made. It will be a visual and literary experience. In the end, I hope that this will preserve not just history, but personal, individual histories. Histories that you don’t get out of a book at school, and it will continue to tell these stories for generations to come so that they remember. We owe them that; to remember and honor them even after they’re all gone.


Aaron Burks



Vere Gardner, Gridley, CA. 18 in 1941, 96 in 2019


Charcoal on Paper

Prep drawing for paintings

Art Wells, Chico, CA 19 in 1941, 96 in 2019


Charcoal on Paper

Prep drawing for paintings

© 2015 by Aaron Burks. Proudly created with

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