By lex, on December 7th, 2011
It was 70 years ago today. For everyone of that generation – the “greatest generation”, although they didn’t know it yet – it was for them what 9/11 has become for us, without the internal rancor and divisions. Everyone could tell you exactly where they were that day. What they were wearing. Who they were with. The ones who didn’t make it back, after all the fighting was done.
Everyone alive that day remembered where they were and what they were doing the moment that a faraway world jumped in through the window and importuned itself upon a country still clawing its way out of the Great Depression. A country inwardly focused, callused by hardship. A country largely eager to remain clear of yet another nasty European brawl. A country suddenly at war.
Coming home from the Arabian Sea in the autumn of 1987, the USS Constellation pulled in to Pearl Harbor to pick up “Tigers” – family members who would sail with us from Hawaii to San Diego. On a whim my roommates and I went up to the flight deck in our summer whites to “man the rail” as we entered port. We were young and happy and ready for anything, laughing as we came on deck.
It’s a beautiful port entry, the water absurdly blue and green and white all at once, a warm breeze snapping at your trousers, happy thoughts of future entertainments never far from the forefront of your mind. You see the family housing of Hickam Air Force Base pass close along the starboard side – close! So close you could almost toss a biscuit ashore. And then you see Ford Island loom up to port, and you become thoughtful, remembering your lessons, remembering your parents’ conversations, remembering “battleship row”. Remembering because it had been passed down to you as an admonition, as a warning, as a duty: Remember.
And then you see her on the port quarter, what little there is to see of her above the water from an acute angle: The number 3 barbette of the USS Arizona, the watery graveyard of 1100 men and a mute testament both to perfidy and unpreparedness. Seventy years after she went down, little rainbow pools of oil still bubble to the surface from within trapped spaces and voids. Footless passageways and machinery spaces embrace the moldering bones of sailors whose names are known but to God. The old salts say that these oil blots are her tears of rage and anguish, her tears of loss and bereavement. They say that she is weeping.
They say that she is weeping still.
These melancholy thoughts are interrupted by the trilling sound of a bosun’s whistle on the 1MC, two short blasts – “Attention to port!” The flight deck snaps to attention. One short blast follows – “Hand salute!” A long moment passes in the heat, the sweat suddenly liberated, trickling down your back as your arm goes up and holds, holds. A silent and expectant moment as one great ship glides softly past another, a thousand crewman rendering honors to another thousand from a far different time, from a far different land. The moment stretches, breaks, and at last is over: Two short blasts – “Ready, two!” And finally, three blasts – “Carry on.”
According to immutable naval custom, the junior ship initiates the rendering of passing honors, while the senior ship returns it. But senior though she may be, there will never again be a salute returned from onboard Arizona. No bosun’s pipe echoes across the water. No one mans her rails. My brothers and I took one long look back at the memorial receding behind us, exchanged silent glances between ourselves, saying with our eyes the things we could never allow ourselves to say out loud. Went below in quiet introspection. It wouldn’t last forever – we were after all, young and careless. But we wouldn’t forget that moment, not ever.
We would remember.