Several years ago as a member of the US Navy Reserves I went on temporary duty to Hawaii. During my two weeks there I had the privilege of visiting the USS Arizona Memorial. I once
wrote of my experience that all the noise around me disappeared. The only thing I could feel was the energy of the memorial, of the ship below the water, the rainbow of oil slowly seeping out and the madness from that clear blue sky day on December 7, 1941. Even as I recount it now I am overcome with the moment I stood over that ship. That ship with bodies never recovered. That ship with only a handful of survivors left with the option of being entombed before the hatch is forever sealed. That ship, a reminder of the losses America took on what many believe was an unprovoked attack by the Japanese. Some would argue there were conspiracies that the US knew the Japanese fleet was coming. Some would argue that it was ignored to get us into the fight. No matter what, the truth lies beneath that beautiful Hawaiian water in the destruction of one of many vessels destroyed and damaged that day.
The first picture is from the museum before you get to the Arizona. It is cropped because, as I was taking the photo, a little Spanish or maybe Hawaiian girl hung on the glass box looking at the display. I wonder if she understood what she was seeing. I wonder if the trip would be more than just a "my family and I went to Hawaii once" kind of memory. I wonder if she felt the pressure
of the memory like I did as I sat over the bright bulkheads and openings of the ship just below the waves. Or was she just hoping to get back to the beach and play in the sand like most of us when we were kids? I type and I wonder.
I don't know what the little girl was thinking or feeling. I don't know what stories her father, mother, grandparents or whomever she was with was telling her about it. Maybe the person was a survivor. Maybe just a passing tourist that looked up "things to do in Hawaii" on the computer and decided to try out the USS Arizona Memorial. What I do know is that I sit here sipping coffee feeling weighed down in my chair knowing I HAVE TO write this post. I have to. And it makes me think of the time I stood above that ship with all the noise fading from the moment. Maybe I have to tell it for the little girl who hung on a memorial staring at a mock ship that is less than half a mile from where she was standing.
Every year I try to remember these events that shape our nation and the world. Every year I try to speak for those who were lost. Every year, if time and ability allows, I write what I think and what I feel about the events. It is hard to explain the feeling as if I am standing on that memorial right now. It is hard to explain how I can hear the faint screams of a day 77 years in the past. It is
hard to explain that I look at this picture of bodies being lined up in plain wooden boxes, one by one by one by one and so on in a mass grave because the casualties were too great, that I can feel that moment for the survivors who are left to do the work. I wonder if the little girl noticed this picture or was she shielded from it. I wonder if she understood at all what the 7 men were doing in the picture. I wonder if I will ever not feel the pain of seeing it, after all I am a proud American who served 22-years in the armed forces of this country. It is hard to explain what I see, feel, smell, hear and experience when I write about this moment that happened 33 years before I was even born. How do you explain the weight of the loss? In fact, this is the weight I feel as I write these words for this blog.
These sailors stand watch over the 1,102 men who died on the USS Arizona. That is the weight. The weight of loss. The weight of life unfulfilled. The weight of wars. The weight of carrying the memory. A list of names, a memorial, a ship under and just above the water, and a forever changed me. And I wonder, what does the little girl think? I also wonder what I may think 10-years from now about this day and this memory. Time is a funny thing. It heals wounds, it makes us wiser, and it changes our perspectives.
See when I went to Pearl Harbor, in the museum there was a playback of radio call from the day of the attack, "Tora! Tora! Tora!" As I walked around the echoes of those words rang. This was before I got to go onto the memorial, mind you. As I walked around and saw the pictures and the displays, the words rang. Several different radio calls rang from different parts of the museum but the Tora! Tora! Tora! was the one that kept echoing to me. I realized as I walked around I was angry. I was angry at the Japanese for such an attack. I was angry at all the Asian people who were there that day at the memorial with me. The plane noises, the explosions noises, the sounds, the feelings and the words Tora! Tora! Tora! all made me angry at Japan. I mumbled to myself "Fuck Japan" as I left to go and catch the ferry to the memorial. It is funny to me now as I write this because I hadn't remembered those moments before right now. I've never recounted the museum feelings. Guess the pressure I feel on me to write this is real. Anyway, let me carry on.
I already spoke about what I felt at the memorial (sometimes I say monument if you hadn't notice... it is the same place as the USS Arizona). An hour or so after I took the boat over to the memorial I returned back to the museum and the radio. I was no longer mad, though. I was sad and hurt at the weight of the room. I was carrying 1,102 souls with me in my spirit. I couldn't focus on the the new feeling towards those words "Tora! Tora! Tora!" What I did know is I started to think about the Japanese pilots who dove their planes into ships. What did those men think? They died so far from home. They attacked America. They delivered what they believed was a mighty blow to the American military might. They followed orders. We all follow orders. The Americans, the Japanese, the men and the women, too. Even so, I wouldn't understand what my second trip into the museum made me feel until several years later I went to Japan.
What I am going to talk about now I have never talked about outside of a handful of people. Many people know I went to Japan again as a member of the US Navy Reserves. What most don't know is that my unit and I took a trip that would link two places in my mind forever. We hopped on a
train and headed to Nagasaki, Japan. What started in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 would end in this place on August 9, 1945. (An interesting side-note about the bombings on Japan: the Hiroshima bomb was dropped on my birthday 29-years earlier on Aug 6th . The Nagasaki bomb was dropped on my wedding anniversary 60-years earlier on Aug 9th. Apparently I'm oddly connected to this event.)
It is amazing what being in a place can do to you and for you. I made my way, with members of my unit, to the Nagasaki Museum. As I walked into the museum I didn't feel the way I felt at the
Pearl Harbor museum. As I walked in I was indifferent to it, I suppose. I read a plaque that spoke about the attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans . At no point, throughout the entire museum, did I see any mention of the attack on Pearl Harbor. I actually thought it was pretty pathetic that they didn't tell the whole story of what happened. Why wouldn't they tell how their men flew into the belly of the beast (technically the side since it was Hawaii) and surprise attacked the mighty America? I expected to hear the rings of Tora! Tora! Tora! in their museum. I did not. There was no sign, that I could see, of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Japanese had killed 2,404 military and civilian personnel at Pearl Harbor and yet nothing was stated about it. No mention of the provocation that preceded the bombing of Nagasaki.
Japan was making me angry again. They caused it. They started it. They made the weight of the USS Arizona engulf me as I stood over the sunken ship and yet they don't have the honor to mention it. I stood in the room. The first room. I stood reading the plaques and looking at the pieces of destroyed buildings and artifacts. They painted a picture of a good old fashioned industrial town with hard workers, mothers, fathers, children, banks, schools and churches, too. How dare they paint a picture that we were the bad guys and they the innocent victims? I was angry. One room in and I was angry.
As I walked on I thought about the people of the city. They wouldn't care if they attacked us. They would care what happened to them. Are they any different than my own country, I thought. How tainted has the "history" been taught in my schools when I grew up? No, I can't be mad at them for skirting the story or only telling part of it. How can I when the majority of Americans (including myself until recently) have never heard of the attack on Black Wall Street (link) which you can read an interesting write up about there if you like. In any case, I can't be mad at the way the story is told. It is human nature to paint the prettier picture for one's own side. By the time I make it to the second room I am back to simply exploring and seeing what happened. I carried on. As I made my way through museum I saw so much carnage and destruction. I thought about Pearl Harbor. In fact, I realized that I kept bouncing between the two places, and the surprise attack. The Americans didn't know it was coming. The Japanese didn't know it was coming. As I write now I can see that each step through museum was weaving the thread, connecting the two places in my mind, hell, in my soul. There would be two things that would forever stay with me and turn Nagasaki from a place that deserved it, to a place, like Pearl Harbor, that deserves to be felt and understood in a way so as to not do it again.
There is one thing to hear about a bomb. To read the stories. To even see some of the videos of explosions. It is another thing to stand next to a life-sized replica of said bomb. This is me at 5'11" and 260 lbs standing next to a replica of "FAT MAN" the Atomic Bomb. I had a shipmate take this picture because I couldn't believe the size of the bomb that did all that damage. This one thing did all that damage. I stood and looked at this one bomb (replica) and it put into perspective what we humans are capable of. One bomb. But I must admit that I was saddened by the bomb. I was amazed by it. I was amazed at its lethal ability. In the museum I just was in awe. It's a crazy thing this game we call war.
Now, I started this part of my blog saying I had never spoken about this before. It is true I haven't spoken about my Nagasaki trip before but it is the second thing that caught my attention that I've sat with all this years. A small picture on the wall catches my attention. The people around me talk about what they are seeing on this display and that display. I've seen burnt bodies of people and animals. I've seen melted bottles and mangled metal. I've seen pictures of skin peeling off people. I've seen the bomb itself (replica). None of that caught my attention like the picture of
this boy. A young boy standing at attention with his little brother or sister on his back. I looked at it and at him and wondered why this picture was there. This kid doesn't look dirty or broken. The baby looks like any other baby way past tired sleep. I would have usually just glanced past the kid and kept moving to something that showed a better display of the power of FAT MAN, but this damn boy has my attention. I am drawn to the picture and read the caption. Damn!
Yes, what I thought was DAMN. What a life this little man with no shoes and standing attention must be going through. I thought of the little girl in the Pearl Harbor museum. What if it were her in this picture that had drawn my attention? What if she were American? Would I have wanted to move past it so easily? Damn! Now, there are many stories on this picture. Here is a link to one of them. (link) but I will share the quote from the link from Joe O'Donnell who took the picture:
“I saw a boy about ten years old walking by. He was carrying a baby on his back. In those days in Japan, we often saw children playing with their little brothers or sisters on their backs, but this boy was clearly different. I could see that he had come to this place for a serious reason. He was wearing no shoes. His face was hard. The little head was tipped back as if the baby were fast asleep. The boy stood there for five or ten minutes.
“The men in white masks walked over to him and quietly began to take off the rope that was holding the baby. That is when I saw that the baby was already dead. The men held the body by the hands and feet and placed it on the fire. The boy stood there straight without moving, watching the flames. He was biting his lower lip so hard that it shone with blood. The flame burned low like the sun going down. The boy turned around and walked silently away”.
Damn! This kid was carrying his dead brother and I don't know why I was drawn to the picture. I don't know why I have to carry this image with me. I don't, wait, I didn't know why, at the time, I had to be drawn to him. What if he was the little girl on American soil? Even now, I get goosebumps thinking of it. In any case, I leave the museum and head to the memorial at Ground
Zero of the explosion. The first thing I notice was the statue of a woman holding a lifeless baby. I sit and stare at it. I can't imagine what August 9th, 1945 at this (that) very spot was like 5 minutes before FAT MAN detonated. The space is getting heavy for me as I stood there but it isn't this statue that is causing it.
I make my way to the middle of the park and stand. The world fades. This is Pearl Harbor all over again. Except I don't feel the voices. I don't feel the agony. I don't feel 1,102 souls on me. It is different. I am here and it is heavy. I stare forward and see the monument in front of me. I walk to it. The heaviness walks with me and I stand. I stand at ground zero of an atomic explosion and I finally feel what I didn't understand I felt at Pearl Harbor. I feel small. I feel very small at that moment. I feel like the little boy in the picture standing at attention, exhausted, barefoot, dirty, hungry, sad, mad, hurting and defiant carrying my dead loved ones.
Damn! The kid, the Arizona, Nagasaki, humanity... me.
I don't know what it says. I don't know what the symbolism is for it, but I know that I must take a knee. I must take a knee for the men and women of both nations. I had to do what that little boy couldn't do: stop and feel the pain of war. I took a knee and I apologized to all those lost in these two places that seem so heavy to me. It isn't a burden or anything like that. Just heavy. I kneel and my shipmate takes a picture.
I knew I would share it one day but didn't know when. I took a knee and felt the heaviness go lighter. The sounds weren't piercing but conversational. It is life and it is death. It is a little boy walking for miles with his dead brother on his back to make sure he gets taken care of because the mother is too sick. It is a little girl hanging on a display case wondering what she is seeing. It is... me.
Just in case you didn't know, Pearl Harbor had 2,404 men and women die in the Japanese attack. With exactly two bombs, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had an estimated immediate death toll between 40,000 and 75,000 men, women and children.
As I sit today thinking of the attack not only on Pearl Harbor but everywhere, I am left with this lesson: there will always be people who are willing to risk others' lives for what they want. Our lives, each and every one of us, is more important than being a pawn for the world's fears. And this is what both these events have taught me which I now share with you.
I will never forget Pearl Harbor or Nagasaki, not because of anger or hate, but because of the sacrifice of people who didn't plan on it. I will remember them in my actions, in my compassion, and in my steps forward through the world because death, while a date to be had by all, is not the end to the story. May we never forget to never repeat this tragic events.
Be amazing friends.