Dec 7, 2008

December 7th

Note: This is from last year, but I have nothing better to say about today, or more to add to this.

Pearl Harbor

Is there any other location on Earth that is more associated with a date on the Calendar than Pearl Harbor is? I think everyone can make the immediate association between December 7th and the attack on Pearl Harbor, even if they are just young kids in school.

I was lucky enough to have been stationed there on my first ship while in the Navy. It is a special place with an amazing history, not only for the US entry into WWII, but for the shipyards there. The locals used to say it was one of the riches places for diving for shells around, and many would still sneak into the harbor to try and dive there when I was there.

As an act of respect and acknowledgment, when commissioned naval ships pass each other on the water, sailors stop what they are doing, stand at attention and salute the oncoming ship.

The sight is can be quite impressive, Sailors line the upper deck while standing at attention and whistles blow to prompt the changing positions. It is quite an emotional moment, especially if you are a returning ship which has been away from an American port for a long time. The white uniforms appear like pillars against a clear ocean sky as these enormous gray floating cities pass each other with magnificent dignity.

As warships enter the harbor, you are always greeted by the site of the Arizona memorial on the left side off of Ford Island. The simple white structure is position across midships of the sunken remains of the USS Arizona. You probably remember the "money shot" in the film Pearl Harbor when the special effects followed the 500 pound bomb on it's decent from the Japanese Dive bomber to the one in a million shot down the stack of the Arizona. The entire bottom of the battleship was torn apart, igniting it's own magazine full of ordnance. More than 1100 sailors were killed instantly, the few survivors having been blown off of the upper decks.

The USS Arizona still remains a commissioned US Navy vessel, and as such every ship that passes it coming and going from the harbor renders honors. Except in the case of the Arizona, it isn't done as a pointless ritual. It is always done in complete silence, no talking is heard, and even the most callous sailor who just wants to get out of the Navy stands a little straighter.

It is something that has to be seen, and be felt to really understand or appreciate.

Tours to the memorial are a popular stop when tourists come to Hawaii, and I have kept one story a such a tour on a special day.


Former Enemies
By Reverend Peter Baldwin Panagore

Some years ago, while leading a church group on a tour of Pearl Harbor, I stood among the clergy and their spouses in the gleaming white-arched and covered Memorial above the USS Arizona. One minister in our group, a man from Maine, had been there on December 7th, 1941 - the day the Japanese flew in to sink our Pacific Naval Fleet. He had not been aboard the Arizona, but his ship had also been hit. He described vividly the horror of being aboard the flaming and sinking vessel as bullets flew and bombs roared. As I listened, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a Japanese tourist entering the Memorial.

It was the man's fine clothes - long tie, buttoned sports jacket, and shiny brown lace-up shoes - that initially attracted my attention. In Hawaii, professionals like lawyers, corporate executives, soldiers and ministers seldom, if ever, wear ties or jackets. Even network television news anchors wear open-collared aloha shirts.

This man, dressed as he was, stood out.

Two women walked with him. The older one I took to be his wife, the other perhaps an older daughter. Both wore conservative dresses and fancy shoes. The man appeared to be in his sixties, and while he may have spoken English, I only heard him speak Japanese. In his left hand, he carried, almost shyly, an ornate and obviously costly multi-flowered wreath about eighteen inches across.

Our group's veteran continued to speak as we clustered around him. He described being caught below deck: feeling disoriented as the ship took on water where he stood, fire coming from above and the smoke stealing his breath. His buddy lay dead at his feet as the young sailor struggled in the darkness to escape, fear and adrenaline propelling him to the surface. Everyone in our group was so engrossed in his story, that no one, except for me, noticed the Japanese
tourist and his family who walked quite near to us.

As I watched, the tourist stopped, turned to his wife and daughter and spoke to them. They stood quietly, almost solemnly. Then the man straightened his tie, first at the neck and then near the belt, and tugged at the hem of his jacket. As if in preparation, he squared his shoulders, took a deep breath, and then exhaled. Alone, he somberly stepped forward toward the railing at the water's edge above the sunken warship.

The other tourists swirled around him. From what I could see and hear, they were apparently all Americans. They were talking, laughing, looking, asking questions; some were listening to our minister's story, but none seemed aware of the tourist who had captured my attention.

I don't believe the Japanese man understood the minister's words. As I listened to one man and watched the other, the Japanese tourist came to the rail, bowed at the waist, and then stood erect. He began to speak; I heard his words but could not comprehend then. However from his tone and the look on his face, I felt their meaning. His manner conveyed so many things at once - confession, sorrow, hurt, honor, dignity, remorse and benediction.

When he had finished his quiet prayer, he gravely dropped the flowered wreath into the seawater - the same water the minister kept mentioning in his reminiscence - and watched as the wreath floated away on the tide. The man struggled to remain formal, to keep face, but his tears betrayed him. I guessed he must have been a soldier, a warrior of the air, whose own plane had showered the bombs and bullets that had torn through our soldiers, sinking their ships. It struck me that he had come on a pilgrimage of repentance, not to our government, but to the gravesite of those young men whose lives he had taken in the name of war.

Stepping backward one pace, the Japanese veteran then closed his eyes and bowed again, very deeply, and very slowly from the waist. Then he stood tall, turned around and rejoined his family. His deed done, they began to leave. All the while, our minister veteran continued his narrative. He and the group were oblivious to the poignant counterpoint occurring behind them.

But I was not the only American to witness the Japanese man's actions. As I watched his family leave, I noticed another American step away from the wall on which he had been leaning. He was dressed casually, and wore a red windbreaker with the VFW emblem on it. He had a potbelly, thinning hair and held his hat in his hand. I assumed the man was a WW II veteran. 'Perhaps he had served in the Pacific,' I thought, 'and was himself on a pilgrimage.'

As the Japanese family walked by him, the American stepped directly into their path, blocking their way. I immediately tensed, fearing a confrontation. The startled Japanese tourist, who had been deep in thought, stopped short, surprise and sorrow mixed on his face. His family, eyes on the ground, stopped abruptly, then crowded closer around him.

But the American simply stood at attention, once again a strong, straight-backed soldier. Then he raised his right hand slowly and stiffly to his forehead, saluting his former enemy.

The American remained in salute until the Japanese, with dawning understanding, returned the gesture.

As the tourists milled by, the two men stood as if alone, joined by their shared pain, glories, honors and memories, until the American, while remaining at attention, slowly lowered his arm and formally stepped backward one pace. The Japanese tourist, when his arms were both once again at his side, bowed formally to the man in front of him. To my surprise, the American returned the honor.

Neither said a word. Neither had to. Their solemn faces wet with tears, expressed to each other in a universal language what could never have been said in words.

I watched as the two men, their reconciliation complete, went their separate ways, united in a way I had never imagined possible.

Reprinted by permission of Reverend Peter Baldwin Panagore
(c) 1998, from Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul by Jack
Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen and Sid Slagter.


  1. What a great post to honor the memory of all that were involved in this tragedy. Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul at the end was very touching.

  2. The Brady's did a nice piece on this too.

  3. Not sure I mentioned this last year, but one of our old family friends grew up in Hawaii, and remembers sitting up on a hill and watching the events of Dec. 7th unfold.

  4. i've been to the memorial and it's ironic almost that there are as many japanese there if not more, than americans. a couple were crying, i'm sure because they lost loved ones and dear friends as well.

    it's a surreal place, looking out on the ship knowing how many didn't make it out

  5. Good read.

    I guess it would be in poor taste to make a Seaman joke right about now.

  6. I choked up on this last year and this year was no different. Thanks for the reprint.


  7. Thanks a lot... Now I'm sitting at my desk crying. How very professional....

    No, really, it is a touching story and I'm glad you shared it.

  8. Excellent story. Isn't being human fabulous?? ;)