Even though I minored in History in college—and thoroughly enjoyed it—it never really came alive for me until I accompanied my aunt and uncle to Hawaii to participate in the events commemorating the attack on Pearl Harbor. For my uncle, who had been college-age himself on that fateful December 7 morning in 1941, it would be his first return to the islands since the end of World War II. For me, it was my first airline flight, first trip to Hawaii, and I thought, a great way to spend almost a week at the beach.
To say that I was disappointed to learn that I was going to have to hang around all of the “old people” (most of them only in their mid-40s at the time) would be an understatement. But, as the days went by, and I was privileged to meet so many of my uncle’s shipmates and fellow Pearl Harbor Survivors (just one of the organizations that attends these events), I began to see history in a real light.
My uncle served onboard the USS Phoenix, a “Brooklyn-class” light cruiser that was based at Pearl Harbor. Although many sailors on the Phoenix observed the “rising sun” on the Japanese attack planes that morning, the ship escaped unharmed. Although the Phoenix escorted many convoys and troop ships throughout the years of the war, she had the distinction of never losing a man in battle. For that reason, she was nicknamed “The Lucky Lady.”
Two of the highlights of the trip were the excursion to the USS Arizona Memorial, which is built over the still-sunken battleship that was blown up in the first wave of the Japanese attack. Looking down into the beautiful waters of the Pacific and knowing that some of the 1,070 souls from the Arizona, who were killed there that day, remain entombed in the sunken wreckage is a very powerful history lesson. The other event that still gives me chills is the visit to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (Punchbowl). In the predawn hours of December 7, hundreds of us boarded buses that transported us to Punchbowl, so that we could be in place for the beginning of the memorial service, which began at the exact hour of the attack years earlier (7:53 a.m.) with the “missing man” formation flyover. I was touched to see grown men in tears and embracing friends and shipmates they had not seen in over two decades.
Today, 69 years after “the date that will live in infamy,” the numbers of Veterans returning for these ceremonies is ever-dwindling. They did not talk much about their experiences, but their valor and patriotism are just two characteristics that made them part of “the Greatest Generation.”