My father was 25 years old on the 7th of December, 1941. He was a midshipman at the US Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, NY. He’d been in the US Army’s field coastal artillery school at Fort Monroe, Virginia two years before. All of his classmates from Fort Monroe ended up going to Bataan after graduation, and if he hadn’t ended up at Kings Point, I mightn’t be here writing to you today because it was no picnic after Bataan, gentle reader. They didn’t call it a “death march” for nothing.
After December the 7th his studies were cut short – men were needed to sail ships, move equipment, food and people to the fight. So my father closed his textbooks and went to sea after Pearl Harbor – the Murmansk run from New York, carrying tanks and ammunition for the Soviet war effort against Nazi Germany. It wasn’t a milk run. He had classmates from that school that didn’t come back either. He saw some of them die in front of him. A country half our population, with 400,000 dead in three and one half years? Everyone knew someone who didn’t come back. Those were hard times. You had to pull together.
There was a time when I was at the Boat School, plebe year that I was feeling rather sorry for myself that I hadn’t gone to Virginia or Duke – I wasn’t a particularly good plebe, and the upperclassmen were especially fond of pointing that fact out to me. We spoke on the phone, my father and I, and troubled by my evident unhappiness he wrote a letter to me afterwards. Remember getting letters?
I remember this one: He told of a time in the North Sea, the convoy harrassed by dive bombers in the daylight hours and threatened by U-Boats around the clock. He told me the story of an ammunition ship getting hit at night alongside him, the way she went up in a column of fire, the strange fact that years later, he couldn’t remember having heard a sound. He told me of another Liberty ship alongside of his, her bow blown off at 15 knots, the way she steamed right under the sea until at last her fantail lifted in the air, the propellor still thrashing. It was a really good letter. He’s been gone for 24 years, but sometimes when I’m feeling low, I pull it out and read it again. It puts things into perspective.
When I was a kid he told me about coming up on deck during the war, the General Quarters alarm sounding, to man his AA gun when his ship was under air attack and seeing a Stuka dive bomber framed in the hatchway at the top of the ladder, growing larger, screaming as it came, the bomb coming loose, falling towards the ship, towards my father.
“Were you scared, dad?” I asked, maybe 10 years old.
“Scared?” he said with a grunt. “I was terrified.”
You never think of your father being terrified when you’re ten years old. It makes him human in a way he’d never been before. In a way you didn’t really want him to be. In a way he had to be eventually, so that you too could become a man.
It seemed so long ago, the stories he told of that day. For everyone of their generation it was the equivalent of Kennedy in Dallas and Columbia combined. Everyone could tell you exactly where they were that day. What they were wearing. Who they were with. The ones who didn’t make it back, after all was said and done.
It was their 9/11 but no one told them that they had it coming, no one dared. You could get punched in the nose for even suggesting it. It was their war on fascism, and the people whose job it was to share the news with the citizenry felt like they had a stake in winning it too, like it mattered who won. They looked at setbacks – and there were so many, so very, very many – as reasons for concern, rather than reasons for exultation. It was a different time.
Everyone alive that day remembered where they were and what they were doing the moment that a faraway world jumped in through the window and importuned itself upon a country still clawing its way out of the Great Depression. A country inwardly focused, callused by hardship. A country suddenly, comprehensively at war.
When I was a child though, Pearl Harbor was just a name to me, as remote as Gettysburg or Shiloh. But on my first cruise, coming home from the Arabian Sea in the autumn of 1987, the USS Constellation pulled in there to pick up “Tigers” – family members who would sail with us from Hawaii to San Diego. On a whim I joined my roomates and went up to the flight deck in my summer whites to “man the rail” as we entered port. We were young and happy and ready for anything, laughing as we came on deck.
It’s a beautiful port entry, the water absurdly blue and green and white all at once, a warm breeze snapping at your trousers, happy thoughts of future entertainments never far from the forefront of your mind. You see the family housing of Hickham Air Force Base pass close along the starboard side – close! So close you could almost toss a biscuit ashore. And then you see Ford Island loom up to port, and you become thoughtful, remembering your lessons, remembering your parents’ conversations, remembering “battleship row.” Remembering because it had been passed down to you as an admonition, as a warning, as a duty: Remember.
And then you see her on the port quarter, what little there is to see of her above the water from an acute angle: The number 3 barbette of the USS Arizona, the watery graveyard of 1100 men and a mute testament both to perfidy and unpreparedness. Sixty-odd years after she went down, little rainbow pools of oil still bubble to the surface from within trapped spaces and voids, footless passageways embracing the mouldering bones of sailors whose names are known but to God. The old salts say that these are her tears of rage and anguish, her tears of loss and bereavement. They say that she is weeping. They say that she is weeping still.
These melancholy thoughts are interrupted by the trilling sound of a bosun’s whistle on the 5MC, two short blasts – “Attention to port!” The flight deck snaps to attention. One short blast follows – “Hand salute!” A long moment passes in the heat, the sweat suddenly liberated, trickling down your back as your arm goes up and holds, holds. A silent and expectant moment as one great ship glides softly past another, a thousand crewman rendering honors to another thousand from a far different time, from a far different land. The moment stretches, breaks, and at last is over: Two short blasts – “Ready, two!” And finally, three blasts – “Carry on.”
According to immutable naval custom, the junior ship initiates the rendering of passing honors, while the senior ship returns it. But senior though she may be, there will never again be a salute returned from onboard Arizona. No bosun’s pipe echoes across the water. No one mans her rails. My brothers and I took one long look back at the memorial receding behind us, exchanged silent glances between ourselves, saying with our eyes the things we could never allow ourselves to say out loud. Pursed our lips and went below in quiet introspection. It wouldn’t last forever – we were after all, young and careless. But we wouldn’t forget that moment, not ever.
We would remember.