It Wasn’t So Long Ago

December 7th, 2009

I think winter has finally arrived, perhaps a little early.  A week ago I was working outside in a t-shirt and yesterday I couldn’t pick up a waterlogged sandbag because it was frozen solid! That’s okay, we did pretty well this fall with a long period of warm weather.  I’m thankful to have finished what I could, and lately it has been clean-up time around the property.

Today is Pearl Harbor Day here in America, which for too many people is quickly becoming a forgotten day of remembrance.  It seems like a long time ago however, and our Greatest Generation have been leaving us too quickly in recent years. Still there are stories and a sense of awe when you think of what took place, and how America was thrust into the war so quickly afterward.  

USS Maryland and capsized USS Oklahoma - U.S. Navy photo

USS Maryland and capsized USS Oklahoma - U.S. Navy photo

I’m a Navy man, and will probably always remember this day.  I lived in Japan for several years.  It’s a beautiful country with a proud, wonderful people.  I really enjoyed my time there, as did my wife and son – they lived there while I was deployed, just a few years ago really.   The young boy was there for much of his first three years and even spoke Japanese for a time (he loves sushi to this day).  I worked with the Japanese military first-hand, and grew to respect the people and their nation’s journey- they are great friends and allies.

It wasn’t alway so of course, as with so much of world history.  Looking back, I have to admit that Pearl Harbor didn’t mean much to me while growing up.  It was the past… twenty or thirty years seems like ancient history to a kid.   As I grow older it seems like yesterday.

The navy changed my view of Pearl Harbor, literally, on one particular beautiful, sunny morning.   I was returning from deployment to the Persian Gulf on board USS Nimitz in June of 1993.  We were stopping in Hawaii for a few days enroute home.  I had not been to Hawaii before, and was excited when I realized we would make our way to Pearl.  One of the long traditions the navy shares is that upon arrival at a visiting port, it’s appropriate to render honors of various kinds, and to look shipshape… that was especially true while coming into Pearl Harbor (headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet).  After cleaning and shining things up for what seems like days on end (and throwing fresh gray paint everywhere) one of the sharpest looking things a ship can do is to have the crew “man the rails.”

We fell out that morning in our “tropical whites” or the nice looking white uniforms that sailors wear (and promptly end up getting grease all over).  It doesn’t take the whole crew of more than five thousand on an aircraft carrier to man the rails (or edge of the carrier deck), so the leadership designates who will do so.  Many of us volunteer for the opportunity, considering it a privilege.  I’ve manned the rails many times before, usually pulling in to some exotic port far across the seas with quite a different mindset.  But I never came in to Pearl Harbor standing on the deck of a ship except on that one occasion.

Hundreds of sailors in bright white uniforms filed up on deck about an hour out of port.  There we were standing shoulder-to-shoulder, as the deep blue sea changed to beautiful aquamarine with white sands and island green looming ahead.  I was standing on the port bow, and as we came in the entrance to the harbor everything was silent.  The massive aircraft carrier, laden with aircraft, men and women, moved quietly through the water at a very slow speed.  There was no conversation among the troops on deck, and I was struck by how narrow the passage was.

I felt like I could throw a baseball to either shoreline from the deck of the carrier- it was that narrow.  And as I looked ahead to how small the harbor and navy shipyard really was, I began to understand how the attack on Pearl Harbor must have been so horrific, and how trying to get some… any… of those ships out through the narrow entrance was a major priority.

As the harbor began to broaden, ahead and to the left I watched as the white memorial to the USS Arizona came into view, just a few hundred yards away, with its flag held high.  I remember the warm breeze, blowing gently across the deck, and the only sound that of small waves splashing against the bow.  It was peaceful and calm.  I wondered about the contrast to so many years before. 

As we approached closer the command “Attention!” came over the 5MC on deck, and then “Hand salute!”

USS Ronald Reagan salute to USS Arizona Memorial, November 17, 2008. - U.S. Navy Photo

USS Ronald Reagan salute to USS Arizona Memorial, November 17, 2008. - U.S. Navy Photo

We stood at attention for a good minute or two, maybe longer.  It was hard to imagine what took place there, or that 1,102 men of the 1,177 killed just on the USS Arizona that long ago morning still lay inside the ship, beneath the calm blue waters.  It was a solemn, respectful occasion, and an opportunity to better understand what Pearl Harbor meant in our nation’s history.

I didn’t have a picture of that morning, but the one above from the USS Ronald Reagan was taken just over a year ago.  I’m glad to see we still man the rails and render honors to the fallen as ships pass by the USS Arizona.  I’m glad we still remember the events long ago at Pearl Harbor.

10 Responses to “It Wasn’t So Long Ago”

  1. My dad was not one to hold a grudge and indeed, his dislike of the Japanese, was tempered by knowing that there were Baptist missionaries in Japan during the war. Nonetheless, he found it difficult to explain the feelings of the country immediately after Pearl Harbor. Today, the idea of “preemptive war,” may be a reasonable course, when things like suitcase nukes are involved, but in 1941, it was definitely considered dirty pool.

    BTW, interesting side note. One of my law school friends was married to a Japanese American woman whose grandfather was one of the few Christian chaplains in the Japanese fleet and was assigned to the Akagi during the Pearl Harbor raid. He came to our graduation and my Dad had a nice chat with him. Also, when I was a kid, through a family friend who was in radio, I met Mitsuo Fuchida when he was in St. Louis preaching at a local church. Very cool.


  2. Wonderful post.

  3. Donna

    What a wonderful post. Seeing the first picture left a knot in my stomach, but I was glad to see the Reagan. My son just transferred off the Reagan. I am so proud of him and all service people.

  4. Thanks for sharing your memories–nice post.

  5. Well written…thanks to them indeed!

  6. Randall- That is very cool… history in person; btw, I was under no illusion about meeting those few folks over there who strongly disliked our presence, even harking back decades from the war. They are a very homogenous society, protective of their people and customs. By and large however, people were sincere and very open to friendship.
    Donna- Wow, awesome that your son was on the Reagan! I wish him and your family all the best. Thanks for coming by!
    Annie, Sage, Warren- Thanks too!

  7. Vincent

    The Honour is not to the Memorial, but the dip of Battle Flags and crew salute is to a fully crewed battlewagon still at war.
    Did you know that the USS Missouri acts as a stem to her cross.
    Oh, all Navy Ships-non US- will request that they can render full passing honour. Which as you know, given where she is in the harbour means some very tight turns.
    Mind you it must have been some sight in the 30’s when the order came to leave port at speed, with herself and the rest of the Fleet cutting through the narrows faster that anything on the ground at that time.

  8. Very moving memory. I was in elementary school at the time of the attack, and my only real memory was how excited and how angry everyone seemed to be. I have two children who have since been to Japan, one, as a missionary and the other as a low level executive engineer for Sharp corporation. They both love the country and the people very much.
    By the way, thanks for coming by my blog. Hope I can keep enough interesting stuff there to draw you back.

  9. Ed

    I have never been there but would like to someday to pay my respects. Excellent post.

  10. Vincent- Yes, that’s a great point. Tradition is important, and you’re right- other nations do render honors, as do we in other homeports. I can hardly imagine what that must have been like! Around ’89-’90 I did have the chance to see both the Missouri and the New Jersey pass and review during a major exercise… I watched them fire the big guns… an incredible sight. If I can ever find my old photos…
    Richard- There aren’t many who have those memories, thanks for sharing them. Neat that your sons were there as well. And I appreciate your visit as well!
    Ed- Thanks; That was my only time there… I’d like to go for a longer visit too.

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