Saturday, December 3, 2011

A Date in Infamy, A personal perspective..

"Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan."..Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States.

Being a history buff that I am and always wanting to visit such places as I have only read about or imagined seeing, my trip to Hawaii would not have been complete without a visit to Pearl Harbor. Actually, not honestly knowing what sights one could see on the island of O'ahu, the visit to Pearl would have made my vacation perfect, regardless.

Many people I have known, or rather those who feel they know me, can't understand the way my old brain works when I visit such places as Pearl Harbor, the USS Lexington, USS North Carolina, the USS Missouri and other magnificent places.

I have a wee bit of a problem. I can't just stand there and look at these vessels and admire their construction. I can't just look at them and say, "Wow! Thats a heck of a boat!" When I see them, I can imagine hearing their guns erupt in massive, thunderous clouds of smoke, sending their projectiles off into the horizon to destroy enemy forces.

I can hear the sounds of dive bombers making attempts to destroy such incredible ships. The crews running to do the job they were trained to do. Sounds of explosions all around and the scream of the ships alarms calling all aboard to battle stations.

To me, they are not just museum pieces, no longer alive thus fading from memory. These ships echo the thousands of people who lived, worked, fought and died on board. The tears that were shed when a friend or buddy lost his life, or shed once the battle was over, then realizing how close they came to losing their own life to an enemy they may not have even seen.

Of all the places I have traveled to in my life, I think that Pearl Harbor will always remain vivid in my mind. Tuesday, November 22, 2011, a date which will live on in my memory forever. The day that I would step on the shores of Pearl Harbor or its proper Hawaiian name, Pu'uloa.

Not having a car, and seeing the Hawaiian traffic firsthand, now glad I didn't, I took a tour bus out to Pearl. I remember the feeling I had as I watched the landscape change, see the road signs directing us to our destination. I can remember the bus coming over a small hill which obscured the harbor at first, then revealing it in its modern splendor. Like a child at Christmas time, anticipating his first visit to Santa's lap, I think I can recall the thoughts inside my mind when I saw the place for the first time.."Oh my god, Pearl Harbor!"

Now, I suppose, to save face, the following should be described as happening to someone else. Maybe the person who sat beside me in the auditorium, letting the excitement of the presentation get the best of their emotions. The Pearl Harbor presentation presented by the US Parks Service, told of the events which led up to the attack on December 7th. Even shown the explosion which ripped the USS Arizona in two that morning. The person setting beside me found it extremely hard to choke back tears. The poor fellow really fought hard not to embarrass himself in front of dozens of tourist. Who am I kidding? That person was me! Yea, I admit it and am proud of it. I found that, if you visit this place and your emotions are not stirred deeply, then, in my opinion, you aren't human nor an American!

The bus arrived at Pearl Harbor rather early, in fact, the memorial wasn't even open yet so I had ample time to walk the grounds and view the displays and museums. I stood near the shore and peered across the harbor at the Arizona Memorial. I honestly could not believe that I was here! Me, the Keeper, at Pearl Harbor! The place where the United States involvement in World War II began!

Now, keep in mind, the harbor has very few ships moored in it. A few supply ships, a battleship looming in the distance, as if keeping humble watch over the Arizona and her brave crew. A battleship I would later visit and recognize as another historical vessel which put an end to the war with Japan, the USS Missouri.

An unknown aircraft carrier sat idle as well. Her registry number unknown to me but read "8", a registry given to the USS Hornet, the one which Colonel Doolittle led the B-25 raid on Japan on April 18th 1942. But was sadly sunk by Japanese forces at the battle of Santa Cruz in 1942. A new carrier CV-12, was built and renamed "Hornet" to carry on the fallen carriers name. I have yet to identify the mysterious "8", moored at Pearl Harbor.

It was quiet that Tuesday, except for the ramblings of the tourist and a faint sound of big band music, circa 1941 playing on the overhead speakers. But I stood there, taking in the view and allowing my mind to drift back nearly 70 years. Back to that fateful day in December when thought the Japanese airplanes flew through Kolekole pass, which could be seen in the morning fog from where I stood. But rather following the large O'ahu mountains to their harbor targets.

I let my mind enjoy itself and do what it does so well...imagine. Drifting off in complete happiness as back in my mind, I began hearing the sounds of airplanes growing nearer. The sound of "Morning Colors" being played onboard the battleships, such as was being played on the USS Nevada.

I could see the many magnificent battleships, all perfectly in a row, the pride of the United States Navy. Smaller vessels cruising the harbor. A gorgeous Sunday morning, a morning that would soon be filled with the sounds of bombs exploding, screams of agony and machine gun fire all across the harbor.

I can't honestly describe how I truly felt that day, I was walking where many people may have died. I love history and the concept of actually being some place that I have only read about or seen on TV is quite incredible to me.

I walked the park compound, visiting the museums, reading the names of those lost on that day, according to the ship they were on. The USS Bowfin, a submarine which was launched December 7th 1942, nicknamed, "The Pearl Harbor Avenger", which totaled 43 Japanese ship kills during the war. A payback for the attack. Also moored at Pearl Harbor.

Many pieces of military equipment were situated along the grounds. Japanese manned torpedoes, which I had no ideal such were ever constructed, anti-aircraft batteries, conning towers and many plaques dedicated the people who gave their lives that day, many, never even knowing who, what or why they were even attacked.

It soon came time to board the little navy operated tour boat which took thousands of tourist a week to the Arizona Memorial. I made sure that I got a decent seat near the railing. I wanted the view of the Memorial to be as spectacular as I knew it would be.

The water was calm that morning as we crossed the harbor towards the Arizona. Again, my little mind drifted off where it loves to be, total imagination! Back, again, 70 years previous to December 7th, 1941. I am here! I am in Pearl Harbor! I could imagine the Japanese planes as they made pass after pass over the sleeping US fleet. Scraff after scraff, riddling the harbor and ships with machine gun fire. I was here! On the very water (yea I know, it wasn't the same water, but you know what I mean). I looked down as the waves came from underneath the tour boat. Raising my eyes upward, imagining the bullets as they covered the harbor. The sounds of the planes as they flew overhead. The whistle of the torpedo bombs now being laid down with intent on destroying the fleet as rest. Thousand pounders now being dropped and exploding on the decks of the vessels.

Moored peacefully in Pearl that morning, were the crews of the USS West Virginia, Arizona, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Vestal, Pennsylvania, Nevada, California and USS Utah, along with many other ships including heavy and light cruisers, destroyers and others listed in different capacities.

Crews who were awaken by a thunderous roar as Japanese plans began their onslaught against the US Navy. In the back of my mind, I could see them sitting there in the morning water. To this day, the mooring slabs are still intact for the West Virginia, Tennessee, Vestal and Nevada. Painted white with their respective ships and registry numbers proudly displayed.

The tour boat slowly pulled up next to the docking rail for the USS Arizona Memorial. I was here! Actually about to step on board one of the most magnificent and emotional war memorials in US history.

So many times in my life I have seen this place, either in a book or some TV show and always wished I could visit. And now I did! Now I am here! Now, I am able to look slightly beneath the water and not only see the weathered remains of a once proud battleship, but understand her purpose and what she still holds dear inside her battered hull to this day...Her crew!

As the boat came to a complete stop and the tourist, myself included, began to step onboard the memorial, I glanced across the harbor one more time. Again, here I stood, mere feet from the infamous battleship. Here in this very spot, nearly 70 years ago, an explosion ripped through the mighty ship, blowing it in two. Here in the very waters that now seem so incredibly peaceful, men screamed, fought, died AND survived the attack by the Japanese navy. In this very spot, young men gave their lives to an enemy they never even knew.

I glanced up at the name on the memorial, USS ARIZONA MEMORIAL. I couldn't believe I was actually here!! I felt tears once again began welling up in my eyes.

Now, some have mentioned how they have enjoyed my ramblings over the years. Some, bold as they may be, have stated that I have a way of writing stories that they feel as if they were there. But, I find myself at a loss for words to further describe what I saw or how I felt as I stepped inside the marble shine. Yes, I admit, my emotions were running high. It was a solemn place, if that is proper english. The Arizona was not just a relic that reflected the beginning of World War II. It was not a place for tourist to gather and gawk at..a rusting hulk. What it was to me, was not only a visible reminder of over 1,100 men who perished on that fateful day, onboard the USS Arizona but the 2,400 plus who lost their lives, both military and civilian.

As I walked onboard the memorial, I slowly made my way towards the open observation deck. If that is what it is called, or the open side walls of the memorial. I now stood where I only dreamed of standing. I am here! On the very platform where dozens of Pearl Harbor survivors have stood. But their numbers now amounting to only a very slim few.

I leaned against the railing, after patiently waiting for other visitors to take photos and pay solemn respects to the ship. I remember vividly, my first thought, "the Arizona!!" Lying below me are over 1,100 men who lost their lives on December 7th 1941. Still entombed inside the very ship that they died on. Many lives instantly that day, scared out of their minds from the sounds of general quarters and battle stations. Dazed and confused, many just awoken out of a sound sleep, never knowing what was going on, possibly thinking it still a drill put on by the captain.

Logic tells me that many may have been vaporized, cremated the instant the bomb detonated inside the powder magazine that morning. Igniting gun powder and fuel stores alike, instantaneously erupting in a massive explosion which ripped the Arizona in two. But in my mind, and I will always choose to feel this way, the crew of the Arizona, all 1,100 of them, still lay peacefully on the sunken decks of this proud ship. Still dressed as they were on the day of the attack. Now, eternally at peace.

Over the last 70 years, survivors of the attack, crewmates of those fallen, were allowed to be cremated and their ashes interred inside the Arizona, when their normal life ended. They, the survivors, were allowed to rejoin their crewmates in death. I can't help but envision something akin to the ending of the movie "Titantic", after the elder Rose passes away at the end. The ship glows in her splendor as Rose rejoins those she knew who perished. My mind see's those whom survived, now passed away, ashes interred inside the sunken ship...their crewmates standing by, welcoming them back, the faint sound of a Glen Miller song being played overhead.

I walked to the remembrance hall. so many names I could not even begin to read or count. So many pairs of brothers who were aboard this ship, eternally lost to war. The parks service Ranger answering questions, with the sound of the Japanese language being spoken in the background. I couldn't help but wonder, if they were there to honor war and those fallen or to gloat for such a surprise and victorious attack. Either way, the past is the past and those who perished, on both sides, should be honored and remembered. They gave their lives for what they believed.

I made my way back to the side of the memorial, the first place I stood when I first came aboard. I did what I always swore I would do if I ever visited this place. I was never in any branch of the military, but I would not allow that to stop what I wanted to do. I stood at attention and saluted the ship and crew of the USS Arizona. The same way I stood at the Pacific War Memorial, glancing down at the list of the fallen sailors from the USS West Virginia, my home state ship and saluted them. It is the very least I could do for so many valiant men.

It is roughly estimated that over 418,000 US citizens died during World War II, both Pacific and European theaters. Our remembrance should not only be for those who died on December 7th, 1941, but also for the other 416,000 who gave their lives for our freedom.

Unfortunately, time was not freely given to allow visitors to spend as much as they would like on the Arizona. I suppose, to accommodate the thousands of visitors, a set time limit had to be enacted. I crossed to the forward view section of the memorial. Peering at the balloon buoy out in the water, recognizing it as the forward bow of the Arizona, my eyes peered close by, almost directly in front of the memorial itself. I watched as quarter size globs of oil..70 years old, broke the surface of the harbor and slowly began to disperse. It is said that, the Arizona leaks between 2 and 9 quarts of oil per day. I think I can almost believe that estimate, because I seen numerous droplets of oil coming to the surface of the water. My first thought..the Arizona still weeps for her crew!

The Arizona still weeps!!

As we were exiting the memorial, I turned once again, looking up the harbor, my mind racing, dreaming, imagining. The sounds I could hear, the bombs exploding, the sights of bodies lying in the water, and those trying to swim to the shore, escaping the hell that was unleashed upon them by the Japanese navy. Above the mooring pile for the USS West Virginia, a magnificent site, the USS Missouri, keeping silent vigil over her fallen sister ship. Here, in this one harbor that time has not forgotten, two mighty ships, the Arizona and Missouri, a representation of the beginning and end of World War II. Fitting, to say the least!

Here you have it. Pearl Harbor, or at least through my eyes. I have worked on it for days, but never really wanting to post it until December 7th. A tribute, not only to those who still lie aboard the Arizona, but to the thousands of other people who lost their lives that day and the years to follow.

Once I got aboard the tour boat that took us back to the mainland, I never turned my head to look back at the memorial. Never, until now, did I wonder why I didn't. Normally, I would turn, as if catching one last glance at something I find spectacular, as if knowing I will never see it again. But tonight, while putting the finishing touches on this latest blog entry, an entry I know only 2 or 3 will read, I think my reason was something else.

A realization!

We can never go back to Pearl. We can never change history! It is just that, a part of our past. As Admiral Yamamoto was quoted as saying shortly after the attack.."I fear we have only awoken a sleeping giant and filled him with resolve..", and indeed, America fought back with a vengeance and won. I never turned to take one last look at the Arizona, because to me, she will never be forgotten! Her crew will forever remain lying at rest inside her hull, still dressed as they were on December 7th. They will continue to welcome the last survivors aboard, as they fall asleep in this life, to serve in peace with their fallen comrades for all eternity.

We, America, must always be ready! Always be posed for war. Ready to protect our nation from any enemy, foreign or domestic which threatens our way of life., our freedom and our resolve.

I am reminded of President Abraham Lincolns, Gettysburg Address, something which is fitting here, at Pearl Harbor, long forgotten, but should never be. Teachers teach this to your students, lest we ever forget the sacrifice made by so many, a speech which simply reads...

" we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States.

We must never forget!

To me, this tribute, or personal perspective, would not be complete without mentioning another gallant ship and her brave crew. One ship still remains sunk at Pearl Harbor with 58 men and one baby girl aboard.

The USS Utah, BB-31/AG-16, a Florida Class Battleship, was designated as a training vessel in 1941. She, as well as other ships in the harbor were attacked and sunk by the Japanese navy.

Utah is listed as "The Forgotten Ship", reason being, she lies on the side of Ford Island where the only access to the memorial is through a naval residential area, thus off limits to non-military personnel and tourist. I heard, during my visit to Pearl Harbor, that the navy was working on a way which would keep privacy safe for their residential area and also allow visitors to the Utah. I think I would like to return when that visit is made possible.

The Utah sank well with-in 30 minutes of the attack, taking 58 sailors with her to the bottom of the harbor. But the sailors were not the only ones who went down with the Utah that day. The cremated remains of a 2 day old baby girl, Nancy Lynne Wagner, the daughter of Chief Yeoman Albert Thomas Dewitt Wagner.

Chief Yeoman Wagner's daughter was brought on board for a ceremony at sea. A tradition of the Wagners. He was awaiting the chaplain to come aboard the USS Utah on December 8th, to perform the burial at sea.

Chief Yeoman Wagner survived the attack that day, but was unable to recover his daughters urn, which he stored in his locker on the Utah.

The childs surviving twin sister, Mary Dianne Wagner Kreigh, was quoted once as saying, "

In retrospect, "I don't think there is a better tribute to my twin sister than to have all those wonderful and brave men guarding her,"

"It would have been wonderful if she had lived, but since she did not, I feel nothing but pride and pleasure that she is in such magnificent company. I could have not asked for anything better than for her to be tenderly, carefully looked after by America's finest."

No, dear ship, you will in no way ever be forgotten!

The harbor holds many souls. Cherishes them and keeps them safe with-in her watery bosom. They are part of her and will always remain a part of her as long as we remember.

I saluted all who perished that day. It was the least I could do.