Summer vacations allow us the time to listen to music, catch up on reading, and have thoughtful introspection. I spent two weeks doing this last summer on the island of Oahu. There are also places on this island paradise that one visits with duty and respect, setting aside a memorial day of sights to connect to patriotism and sacrifice. I began this day of reverence with a visit to Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial. Built more than twenty years after the attack on December 7, 1941, the memorial honors over one thousand deceased crewmen aboard the battleship but also many more military and civilian personnel killed on that day.
As I continued reading, I discovered why the photo was in the museum. A chill went up my spine upon seeing the date of the contest: December 6, 1941. As a reward for doing so well in the contest, the band members were allowed to sleep late Sunday morning. These smiling, fresh young men were sleeping on the second deck when, at 8:06 a.m., the USS Arizona was hit by an armor-piercing bomb from a Japanese plane that slammed through its deck and ignited the forward ammunition magazine. The ship quickly turned into a fiery inferno and sank to the bottom of the harbor in less than nine minutes. A total of 1055 men died instantly, including all members of the band.
Visitors are shuttled out to the harbor to enter the USS Arizona Memorial. Young sailors, standing with ramrod posture, wearing starched white uniforms, direct the passengers for seating, and then drive the boat, looking very professional and competent. This day was serene with warm sunlight striking sparks upon the blue water. Looking back to shore I saw peaceful clouds hanging over the mountains beyond the harbor. The sea was smooth as velvet.
The 184-foot long memorial is a gleaming white structure spanning the mid-portion of the sunken battleship. Architect Alfred Preis gave this description of the memorial. “The form, where the structure sags in the center, but stands strong and vigorous at the ends, expresses initial defeat and ultimate victory. . . . The overall effect is one of serenity. Overtones of sadness had been omitted to permit the individual to contemplate his own personal responses . . . his innermost feelings.”
I felt hushed reverence looking down into the sea and realizing that over a thousand seamen are entombed in timeless silence only eight feet below. Realistically and symbolically, the tomb is not sealed because the battleship is still seeping oil. Someone near me whispered that it’s believed it will take 265 more years before all the oil leaves the ship. I walked along to the end and gazed upon the wall of names. Thinking of that day 77 years ago and of all the people who died at Pearl Harbor in that oil-smeared blazing disaster I am humbled. These gallant good men now rest forever in a consecrated and sacrosanct sea of silence.
Attached to the severed mainmast of the sunken battleship the American flag flutters from its flagpole against the backdrop of azure sky reminding us of the price of freedom. The boat returns our group to shore, and I look back at the white memorial and think of a quote from Shakespeare’s Henry V:
We few, we happy few, we
Band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds
His blood with me
Shall be my brother.
After Pearl Harbor I went to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, located in the Puowaina Crater, an extinct volcano referred to as “Punchbowl” because of its shape. This cemetery is the hallowed resting place of those soldiers killed at Guadalcanal, China, Burma, Guam, Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Wake Island, and Korea. The Punchbowl is filled to capacity with 35,255 gravesites.
One gravesite that is routinely visited is that of the Pulitzer Prize winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle. His grave is #109 in Section D, beside a beautiful rooted tree. Pyle was killed on Le Shima, Okinawa on April 18, 1945 and is buried between the markers of two unknown soldiers. He was 44 when he died. I felt he would be at peace buried here in this cemetery with the soldiers that he wrote about so eloquently. I consider Pyle to be the Poet Laureate of WWII because his writing captures the essence of men in war.
It is ironic that Pyle survived many of the major battles of the European campaign and then was killed by a Japanese machine gunner the last year of the war. After living in an environment of mud, blood, and death that enveloped him and the infantrymen he so cared about, Pyle was completely exhausted and depressed and had a premonition of his own death. He wrote: “. . . for me war has become a flat black depression without highlights, a revulsion of the mind and an exhaustion of the spirit.”
As I stood by his grave, I recalled many great writers of WWII, including Norman Mailer, Irwin Shaw, John Steinbeck, James Michener, and Ernest Hemingway, but it was Ernie Pyle that the soldiers loved. His simple writing captured the brutal, harrowing existence of the American infantry soldier with an eloquence and poignancy that continues to move readers today.
Looking across the many gravesites on this Punchbowl and thinking of all the servicemen who died so far from home, their dreams never realized and their families emotionally shattered, I thought what might they have accomplished and been had they lived. Walking to the top of the Punchbowl to say my final aloha, I took one last glance at that crater of graves, saying a prayer for those fallen heroes who faced the harsh realities of war and paid the ultimate price for our freedom.