Originally written: December 7th, 2011
As I woke up in the darkness that was our hotel room I reached for my phone to look at the time. 5:00am. I think to myself, well that can’t be accurate because we were due to wake up at 4:30am. Suddenly a shot of panic sweeps through my whole body…holy sh*t, we’re late! My body doesn’t want to believe what my head has come to grips with; our perfectly laid plan has gone to hell.
Rather than get up early, get ready and head out to breakfast before we drive to Pearl Harbor, the three of us (Jon, Brian and myself) shake away the cobwebs and begin a hurry up offense to rival the Buffalo Bills of the early nineties. I head to the front desk of the Sheraton Waikiki to check out, while Brian and Jonny are just a few moments behind me. The three of us get to the car, throw our bags in the trunk and begin a day none of us will soon forget.
As we get closer to the Pearl Harbor visitor’s center the traffic begins to increase and slow to a crawl. It is still dark as we pull up to the police officer directing traffic. We explain that we have a handicap placard and that it would be more convenient if I could get as close as possible to the main entrance. The officer directs us to the main drop off point, but won’t allow us to park in the empty handicap stalls. After dropping me off, Brian and Jon drive down the road to the Aloha Stadium parking lot and hiked almost a mile back to find me. The line to get into the visitor center was at least a quarter mile long, but that was for the general public. I had arranged, in the weeks prior to today, to have our names on the invited guest list, so the three of us were allowed in the park before the general public. We were able to find seats roughly 50 yards from the speaker’s podium and decided to get settled in.
I mentioned to Jon that the park service was giving limited tours of the Arizona Memorial today and that it may be difficult to obtain the free tour tickets once the ceremony was concluded. Jon spoke to a park ranger and about ten minutes later the ranger came back with three passes to the 12:30pm movie and tour. Now that the tour was no longer a concern I began to sit back and enjoy people watching.
The invited guests were asked to take their seats and a few moments later the general public was released from their queue to scramble for chairs. Once the seats were all occupied the remaining attendees found standing room on the grass.
To begin the ceremony they had a Hawaiian blessing, which is always done so beautifully, then Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii fame began the speaking part of the ceremony. A few people spoke briefly, then at 7:55am (the precise time the attack began back in 1941) a moment of silence was observed for the victims of the attack. Moments later four F-22 Raptors flew over the visitor center in the missing man formation. We were unable to hear the Raptors approach, but once overhead the noise was intense. After the F-22’s flew out of sight, in the harbor, the USS Chung-Hoon went by with the crew in review formation.
The presentation of the colors was next and a band began to play our National Anthem. As they played, I was amazed by the response. People began, quietly at first, singing along with the band and as the music continued more voices joined in. It was a spontaneous reaction that gave me goose bumps (chicken skin in Hawaii) and made me much more aware of the significance of where and why we were here.
The 120 attending survivors were recognized and asked to stand (if able) while the crowd applauded them for their service to our nation. After a few more guests spoke, Mal Middlesworth, the keynote speaker and Pearl Harbor survivor took the podium. Mr. Middlesworth was eighteen years old on the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a marine assigned to the heavy cruiser USS San Francisco. He spoke about the duty of passing on the legacy of the Pearl Harbor survivors. He told the crowd of nearly 5,000 people that when he goes to schools to speak to the children he does it so that younger generations realize the sacrifice his generation was asked to give. Mr. Middlesworth reminded us of the Pearl Harbor survivor’s slogan: Remember Pearl Harbor. Keep America Alert. An eloquent man, Mal Middlesworth held the attention of everyone who attended that ceremony…I can only hope they listened to his message.
After Mr. Middlesworth spoke, there was the presentation of wreaths to honor all of the ships stationed at Pearl in 1941. There was a 21-gun salute and the playing of Taps as well. The colors were retired and then the survivors were led through the “walk of honor” where current military members lined a walkway and saluted the survivors as they exited the main ceremony grounds.
Even though he brought his own, Jon ended up taking my camera and getting as many pictures of the survivors as they departed for me. I was doing my best on the crutches, but it was not easy to fight the crowds and take the pictures I wanted. As we hung around for our 12:30 movie and boat to view the USS Arizona Memorial, we wandered around the newly renovated World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument complex. As we were waiting, Brian was approached by an older gentleman, in an electric wheelchair, who asked him where he had gotten his ceremony program. Brian directed him to the area where, upon entering, we picked ours up. Afterwards Brian decided he should have just given his to the older man and spent the next 20 minutes looking for the man. Brian eventually found him and, in an act of selflessness, gave the man his only copy of the 70th Anniversary commemoration program.
While we waited on line for our movie time to be called, the staff was very helpful in making sure I was able to sit and put my foot up. We watched the film about Pearl Harbor and afterwards were ushered outside to wait for the boat to take us across to the Arizona Memorial. As the park ranger was telling the group some facts about the attack and the monument itself he stopped mid sentence, excused himself, and walked over to a survivor in a wheelchair, shook his hand and whispered something in his ear, came back to the group and picked up right where he left off. I thought that gesture showed an amazing amount of respect and honor, and all the park rangers and volunteers acted that way. The ranger told us how veterans who served on the USS Arizona and survived the attack had the option, to this day, to be buried in the ship after they died.
We rode out to the Arizona Memorial, the flag flying at half mass today, and spent time looking into the water at the rusted skeleton of what remains of the ship. I still find it amazing that oil is still leaking from deep within her bowels, bleeding for 70 years. Some refer to the oil as the Arizona’s tears. The marble wall containing the names of those killed on that fateful day was adorned with bright, colorful wreaths representing the different branches of our armed forces.
Our time was drawing to a close and we were instructed to head back to the boat that would take us to the visitor center. Having been to the Arizona Memorial before I instructed Jon and Brian to hang back and we could take the next boat in 15 minutes. I was hoping to sit in the very last row of the boat so I could recreate a picture I had taken many years before of the flag waving off the back of our boat in the foreground, the USS Arizona the main subject and the USS Missouri in the background. Now that I had a better camera and lens I couldn’t wait to see what I could do with the same subjects.
As I hobbled up towards the waiting area for the next boat the ranger there pulled us aside and kept us in our own holding area in front of the line (due to me being on crutches). As we waited there three survivors were brought up with us as well. The boat came and the ranger gave us permission to head down the ramp. Brian, Jon and I politely declined to go and allowed the three veterans and their families to go ahead of us.
By the time I had made my way down the ramp, Jon had secured the back row in the boat for us. As I came on board I noticed a survivor, in his wheelchair, sitting in the aisle by the second to last row of seats. I asked him if I could sit next to him so that he could be my blocker and keep people away from my leg. He laughed and said yes. I asked him what he had thought of the ceremony, he asked me about my leg and the rest of the 10-minute boat ride was a moment in time I will cherish the rest of my life. I would love to share what we talked about, but it was such a wonderful experience I am going to keep it close to my heart.
Remember Pearl Harbor. I will never forget.