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I arrived at Pearl Harbor Naval Station in autumn of 1980 with orders to join a spanking new fast-attack submarine. The U.S.S. New York City was built in Connecticut and she traversed the Panama Canal to Hawaii where she would be home-ported in Pearl Harbor for many years to come.
As is the case with many new vessels, mechanical difficulties were discovered and she went into dry dock for repairs and that is where she was the first time that I saw her. Because my boat was not going to sea for a while, plus my very junior status, I was picked for many and various shore duty assignments.
One day my chief said to me, “You will be part of the annual December 7th ceremony on the Arizona Memorial, so get your uniform ready and don’t be late!”
Those were words that I really didn’t want to hear. I wanted to stay out late and do all the fun things that red-blooded American sailors do when they are not on a ship at sea, but at a most uncivilized hour on the following morning I reported in my dress white crackerjack uniform to the small boat pier from which about 100 sailors would leave for the Arizona Memorial for that service.
A short while later I was one of the formation of rows of sailors and marines called to attention on the Memorial. The attending chaplain called for a moment of silence to honor the dead. As we stood above the sunken Arizona and the 1,700 brave men for whom it was a tomb, I was transported in time to that morning 40 years ago, the “Day of Infamy” in the stirring words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when the world came apart for the American people.
At 7:55 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, hundreds of Japanese planes zoomed out of the sun and crossed the harbor. Their presence was no accident.
Weeks before, in order to avoid detection, the units of the Japanese fleet had departed singly from various Japanese ports and the fleet reassembled at sea. The armada sailed across the Northern Pacific to close in on its target, the American Navy installation and ships at Pearl Harbor. The planes of the Japanese carriers crossed the mountains in several large formations and came in low over the harbor.
If I had been a fly in the cockpit of the lead plane, flown by Flight Commander Fuchida, I would have watched his anxious gaze through the canopy of his cockpit. Fuchida and the other Japanese pilots had gone through months, perhaps years, of study of maps of our Navy installation, and his relief was great when he spotted Ford Island, the landmass with its airfield in the center of the harbor. With this to give him his bearings, everything else fell into place.
His next quick look was for the American defenders. He saw none. Where were the fighters straining for altitude to force the duels of fighting skills which would determine who lived and who died? Where were the puffs of black smoke from anti-aircraft fire, the big shells designed to knock a plane from the sky? Where were the large belt-fed machine guns buried in pits of sand to send thousands of half-inch bullets to rip through planes and pilots alike? Where were the ant-sized figures of soldiers running to their posts and throwing their rifles to their shoulders to shoot at the low-flying planes? They were not there! None! It was a total surprise!
Fuchida broke radio silence for the first time since the fleet left Japan. His exultant voice cried “Tora, Tora, Tora,” a prearranged code meaning, “We have achieved complete surprise!” The greatest wakeup call in history was about to be delivered, courtesy of the Japanese Imperial Navy.
The Japanese airmen pushed their throttles to full speed and on his order, broke formation and went for their targets. Every man knew what to do. The torpedo bombers immediately went into a dive; their planes have to skim the surface of the water in order to align the aiming crosshairs on the nose of the planes with the vulnerable sides of the ships. The higher-level bombers maintained altitude. As they approached battleship row, one of-these set his sights on the U.S.S. Arizona. At exactly the right instant, he released his bomb and it plunged toward the Arizona and he watched the fall through a hole in the floor of the plane. The bomb penetrated the number two turret magazine and a terrific explosion broke the ship apart. A huge column of smoke billowed into the air; the Arizona was blown up.
After passing the dying battleship, the Japanese pilot returned for a look. He banked hard to the left and the straps of his harness bit cruelly into his shoulders as he saw the horizon turn into a vertical line in front of his canopy. He went in low to see if any of the crew were alive topside and proceeded to kill them with machine gun fire.
What happened on the Arizona to leave her so defenseless? As soon as the topside watch spotted the planes, they sounded the general alarm. Two thousand sailors poured from their racks, stumbling over each other, frantically pulling on their dungarees as they ran for their battle stations. Before they reached them, the ship exploded. Steel bulkheads and deck fixtures were vaporized into shrapnel. Many of the crew were killed instantly and the rest were drowned as seawater poured into the sinking ship — 1,700 died that day on the Arizona.
The next battleship over was the Oklahoma. She took several torpedo hits, lost her watertight integrity, and “turned turtle.” Her masts broke off in the mud of the bottom and her propellers pointed to the sky. For the sailors below the decks, the world turned upside down in a matter of minutes. The bulkheads turned into ceilings and the deck became a bulkhead. Pieces of equipment weighing thousands of pounds were torn loose and flung about, crushing dozens of the trapped crew. Water poured into the ship, all lights went out, and the inky blackness added to the panic.
No doubt, some of the imprisoned men went totally out of control, screaming at the top of their lungs and thrashing about in the rising water as they climbed over shipmates to get a last gasp of air. But there must have been those who remained calm, who reached deep inside to show the character that let them comfort the dying even while they, themselves, faced death. Perhaps they placed comforting hands on an injured comrade and told a joke or spoke of a beautiful girl. Perhaps they recited the 23rd Psalm to tell of green pastures and still waters to be reached in the life to come. These were 18- to 20-year-old men, scarcely out of boyhood, who had the character to comfort others who were dying while the slowly rising water surely told them of their own imminent death. May all of us have such courage.
The next battleship over was the Tennessee and she was on fire. Her crew fought a monster with a different face: flame and thick black smoke. The temperature in a ship’s compartment can rise several hundred degrees in a matter of minutes. Thick smoke with no oxygen must have seared the eyes of any sailor trapped in one of them and the pain must have beaten him to the blistering hot metal of the deck. In a last desperate effort he would have lunged to door handles to escape only to feel the flesh peeled away from his bones by the red-hot steel and, mercifully, he would have blacked out.
The men from Japan would have their comeuppance and their characters would be severely tested. Many times in the years to come they would have to cope with fear and. dying and death. Their damage control skills would be pushed to the edge. The men from Japan would have many opportunities to show the world how they would handle fire, and flooding, and explosions, and thick, black smoke, and airplanes with machine guns, torpedoes, and bombs flown by pilots whose sole aim was to kill as many of the enemy as possible by whatever means. They would have the opportunity to know how it felt to be trapped in a big ship with its keel turned to the sky and the jamming of the heavy metal doors preventing their escape as the ship plunged deep under the water. Their time would come.
Four bloody years later most of the great Japanese sea fleet was parked on the ocean floor, courtesy of the U.S. Navy, but the horror of December 7, 1941, was all ours.
Forty years later, I stood in formation on the Arizona Memorial and I thought how peaceful the moment was. When the ceremony ended, I looked over the side into the green water and I saw the old battleship. A trace of oil still escapes and I guess that is how the old ship bleeds. I looked to the west to rest my eyes on the green of sugarcane fields growing up the side of the mountains. The strong rays of the sun filtered through the clouds and I listened to the light slap of the waves on the Memorial. It was a most peaceful moment and one that I shall cherish for the rest of my life.
When the ceremony was over and the formation broke, the chaplain, a Navy officer, approached me. I saluted him and he said, “Follow me.” He led me to an elderly woman and introduced me to her. He said, “This is our guest of honor. Please escort her to whatever she would like to see.” She asked to see the Wall of Names, the granite wall at the end of the Memorial where the names of the 1,700 sailors and marines killed in the Arizona sinking are engraved. She asked me to find MS2 Williams. When we found his name, she told me, “This is my son. He is buried inside this ship. This is his tomb.”
She told me that her name was Williams and that she had been recently widowed. She had married her childhood sweetheart shortly after they graduated. Shortly thereafter he was inducted into the Army and sent overseas in World War I. In action in France, he was badly wounded somewhere in his lower body. He came back home on a stretcher and he spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. They managed to have one son. When their son reached military age, he decided to “go a-roaming” and joined the U.S. Navy. (Perhaps he saw the enticing Navy recruiting posters, or an older buddy returned home with tales about pretty girls on the other side of the world.) His parents put him on a bus headed to boot camp and that was the last time that they ever saw their son. The Navy sent him to Pearl Harbor.
One Sunday afternoon, listening to the radio, they heard some wild story about Japanese planes bombing Pearl Harbor: A few days later the rumor was painfully confirmed by a knock on the door and the delivery of the dreaded telegram:
“The War Department regrets to inform you that your son, MS2 Williams, was killed in action on December 7, 1941, while serving on board the U.S.S. Arizona.”
Mrs. Williams told me something her husband used to say several times each year. “In the First World War, I lost myself; in the Second World War; I lost my soul”. She showed me an old black and white photograph of a young man just out of his teens in a sailor’s uniform, a photograph sent home from Hawaii for Mom and Dad. When my escort service for Mrs. Williams was ended, I was glad my duty number had come up. I walked away from her a wiser and more thoughtful man.
Hundreds of thousands of American men and women have given their lives while serving in the armed forces of our country. That number multiplied by 10 received wounds. Without their sacrifices, we would be living in poverty, ground under the heel of a merciless conqueror. All of our resources would have been stripped away and sent overseas without compensation of any sort to us, the rightful owners. There would be no grocery stores with shelves groaning with every imaginable need. Our people would stand in line for hours on end at some drab warehouse to get a few questionable canned goods and a hunk of moldy bread. There would be no consoling churches. Organized religion would be illegal. Hostile foreign armies would roam our land while their warships patrolled up and down our coastlines. America, owes everything to those who gave their lives or suffered grievous wounds to protect our independence.
National Memorial Day is celebrated in May. The very best we can do for those who gave so much for us is to remember them publicly in the news media and in services of various kinds. When you draw a breath of air and it has a sweet taste, that taste has a name. It is called freedom, and we have it courtesy of the U.S. Armed Forces. Let us pause for a moment on the day dedicated to them to give a brief thanks to the men and women who placed their lives in harm’s way so that our lives would not be threatened.
- Photo: By Wally Gobetz via wallyg's Flickr photostream and is used under creative commons license.
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