Forgetting is Not an Option

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We did what we could.

We did what we could.

We did what we could.

I heard that over and over again from the lips of each of the four Pearl Harbor survivors at Sunday’s memorial service. Now in their nineties, these men may not be able to tell you their children’s names or where they parked the car, but they can still tell you with absolute certainty, with absolute clarity where they were, what they did, and what they were thinking the morning of December 7, 1941 – 70 years ago today – when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

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“My buddy and me were trying to decide what to do about breakfast,” remembers one. “Did we want to go to the mess hall or did we want to go to the church around the corner where the pretty ladies would feed us free doughnuts and coffee? We never did decide – we never got breakfast anywhere that morning. I was a 20 year old Clerk, and when I heard that first bomb hit, I thought ‘One day somebody’s gonna’ ask me who was here and how many survived,’ so I ran down to the office, squatted down, and got the muster from the bottom file cabinet drawer. About that time my second lieutenant came in. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked me, and when I told him, he said ‘That’s a good idea.’ It was the last thing he ever said cause right then, a strayer came in through the screened window and killed him. I would’ve been killed, too if I’d’ve been standing up. I just thought to get the muster. We all did whatever we could think of to do.”

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Pete remembers trying to get his bearings, trying to decide what he should do when another soldier appeared, his left arm dangling from the shot he took to the elbow. “What should I do?” the wounded soldier asked Pete. “Get in that truck over there,” Pete told him, pointing to an abandoned truck. “By the time I got to the truck, it was full of fellas needing medical attention. It was chaos. A nurse came out and started directing traffic. I’d never driven anything but a ’37 Chevrolet, but I drove that truck that day. I was grinding those gears – never did get it in second gear. Drove all the way to the hospital in first. I just did what I could.”

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“Chester was a radio operator,” his wife tells me. “There was a drill scheduled for that morning, but it was canceled, so Chester left his post to stretch his legs and that’s when the first bomb hit. He went back to his station and radioed ‘Pearl Harbor under attack. This is not a drill. Repeat: this is NOT a drill.’ It was the only thing he could think of to do.”

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The two-star General who served as emcee for the ceremony told me about going back to Pearl Harbor for some training once he made General. While there, he happened upon an old friend, an Admiral in the Navy. Knowing his friend was the son of a man who served as Commander of one of the ships stationed at Pearl Harbor on that fateful day, the new General asked “Where’s your father now?” “Down there,” said the Admiral, pointing to the water where the ships and so many other bodies are interred.

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Mark1

“He didn’t really want to talk about World War II,” Mark told me, “so I asked him to tell me about his scariest memory, and he told me how he was flying a mission to snap some reconnaissance photos. He looked down to turn his camera on, and when he sat back up, he was surprised to find this big silver plane flying wing-tip-to-wing-tip with his plane. ‘Where’s that guy come from?’ the American pilot was thinking. ‘Why didn’t he shoot me? Did he shoot my gunner? How in the Hell does that plane fly without any propellers?’ Questions like these whizzing through his brain, the fella looked back over at the strange plane (it was a German jet – the Germans had them, but the Americans had never heard of them), saw the German pilot salute him and then zoom off in that strange-looking plane.” Mark was so captivated by the story, he painted a picture of the two planes and presented it to the pilot. It’s now back in the museum at the Dixie Wing, the local branch of the Commemorative Air Force.

(Note: That’s Mark in the photo above, standing in front of the painting. Hard to see on account of the glare, I know. Guess you’ll just need to visit.)

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Survivors3

Survivors4

My daughter travels around the country portraying Betty Grable at events like this. “You should’ve seen those Pearl Harbor survivors when you walked by,” someone told her as she took her seat before the service began. “They were all hunched over looking at the floor, but then Betty Grable walked by, and those shoulders straightened, those heads snapped up, and those eyes never left you for a moment.”

As she greeted the survivors, she asked what she always does just before thanking them for their service: Would it be all right if I plant a Betty Grable kiss on your cheek? She’s never been turned down.

Not once.

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“Do you have as much trouble keeping your seams straight on those stockings as we always did?” one of the wives asks my daughter.

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Vetsalutes

We went outside where the flag was raised then lowered to half staff followed by the ringing of the Navy bell. As the survivors stood before the flag, one instinctively raised his arm to salute, but his arm wouldn’t cooperate . . . until, that is, his wife quietly slipped her hand under his elbow and offered her support for his salute.

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The stories from the two governments are not nearly so clear. There’s much finger pointing and enough questions to last eons. Theories abound. Heads are scratched.

Zenji Abe, a Japanese Raider, was surprised to find out on the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor that the United States considered it to be a sneak attack. It was then he discovered that the Declaration of War had not been delivered to the U.S. authorities in a timely manner. No wonder it was considered a surprise attack.

Information is withheld, stories are constructed – and I mean on both sides. When do we cross the line into propaganda, I wonder.

But most importantly, I see once again the power of stories – and I don’t just mean the telling but the bearing witness, too. When we tell our stories, and when we bear witness to the stories of others, gaps are closed. Healing occurs. And, if we’re lucky, history doesn’t repeat itself.

Typewriter

7 Comments

  1. Angela

    Your survivor interviews are wonderful, Jeanne, and of course, Alison is beautiful. 

  2. Paula Puffer

    I’m so glad you captured these stories and I love how the guys perked up when Alison walked by.

    My friend Allison just did some interviews with some veterans of all the wars with her students at UALR.

    • whollyjeanne

      that’s great to hear about your friend! in a former life, i was a personal historian. it took a long time for these ww2 vets to speak up. they truly were . . . are . . . patriots.
      ~~~~~
      Jeanne Hewell-Chambers, BS, MA/TLA

      on stage, online, on paper, and on cloth:
      blog: http://www.TheBarefootHeart.com
      blog: http://www.WritingCloth.com
      twitter: @whollyjeanne
      facebook: jeanne hewell-chambers/injeanneious
      facebook page: Wholly Jeanne

  3. Anonymous

    I’m just going to see I totally agree, because you’ve said it all so beautifully here. Nothing else could be added to it. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  4. Mark

    Not only did you share compelling stories, but you did so with eloquence and respect.  It shows in the telling, in your writing.  Sometimes I think the world would be a calmer place if we did what we could rather than what we ought.

    • whollyjeanne

      i agree: the world would be a calmer place if we did what we could instead of being governed and motivated by what we ought. thank you, my friend.

      • Mark

        You are welcome.

        And…the blog post I promised is finished.  

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