In one gut-wrenching battle scene in Pearl Harbor (opening today), Cuba Gooding Jr. is seen with tears streaming down his cheeks. "I wasn't acting, and now I can smile about it," the Oscar winner tells TV Guide Online. "I couldn't stop crying because I was hanging on to the world's biggest machine gun, firing away at the enemy, and the noise and concussion were horrible. I thought, 'I'm going to die up here in the middle of this fake battle.'

"But being there while that page of history was filmed was one of those defining moments that you never forget," he adds. "I'm glad I was up to the physical challenge. I'm still in shape, but one day when I'm in a wheelchair I can put on the tape of Pearl Harbor and watch myself in my glory."

Gooding Jr. — who starred as a naval hero opposite Robert De Niro in last year's Men of Honor — has a markedly smaller role in Pearl Harbor. "Some people ask me why I did it," he says. "I tell them it's because I got the opportunity to play another man who was important not just to black history, but American history. My part isn't [that] big, but I know it will affect people just the same."

Still, didn't the Jerry Maguire star feel like the token black hero in a sea of white military men? "If I am, I'm proud to be a token," he says. "I'd be a token on a subway if I thought it had some value. I'm representing the power of the human spirit that's indicative of the best in the men who gave their lives for our country."