Postcard from Pearl Harbor: 60 years after attack, a bid farewell
Seattle Times staff reporter
The old guys have been trickling into Honolulu in larger numbers than expected. Sightings have been noted all over the island. A few geezers have even been seen in Speedos on Ala Moana Beach.
They're almost all in their 80s now. Many are bent and hard of hearing. Some limp, and some don't walk at all. You can spot them by their Navy caps, which they all seem to wear, even on the beach, that identify them in curly yellow letters as Pearl Harbor survivors.
About 500 were expected here to mark this, the 60th anniversary of the attack, but it's estimated that up to double that number have come. Sept. 11 has had something to do with this. What might have been a low-key anniversary was caught up in the patriotic wave.
Nationalism is at a high, and so is interest in the only other catastrophic sneak attack by a foreign enemy on American soil. Pearl Harbor has been the constant historical point of reference. The story of Dec. 7, 1941, has become newly relevant, as have stories of survivors.
"They want to hear from us old farts again," said 83-year-old Jeff Mayner of Norwalk, Calif. "Fine. Talking's one of the only things I can still do."
So they've come by the planeloads from all over the country, with canes and caps and stories and gripes. Nobody can gripe like an 80-year-old man. "Goddurn heat makes everything sticky," one said just off the plane.
They've attended functions all week, most of them occurring or ending up at the USS Arizona Memorial in the middle of Pearl Harbor.
From Atlantic to Pacific
In September, we made our way to Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan, stood in the middle of the wreckage as workers searched for bodies in what was left of the World Trade Center. The battleship Arizona was the Ground Zero of its day, and we thought it fitting, in the first week of December, that we go there.
It's about a 45-minute drive from Waikiki to the Pearl Harbor Navy base, where the tour begins. Lush green mountains of the Koolanu Range rise up in the east, and mountains of the Waianae Range peer down from the west. The harbor glimmers at the bottom of a bowl.
There's a museum and gift shop (of course), and a small theater where you're required to sit through a 20-minute documentary of the attack.
Before the film, a guide asks if there are any Pearl Harbor survivors in the audience. A man up front slowly rises to his feet. He doesn't look particularly happy about it but manages a parade smile. He's wearing a yellow Hawaiian shirt and survivor's cap. The audience applauds. It's a long, heartfelt applause. Many in the audience wear "Proud to be American" buttons and T-shirts. The man makes a 360 and waves like a pro.
The crowd is then herded onto a Navy boat, which then chugs across the harbor.
From a distance, the memorial looks like a little white bow tie floating on the water. Up close, it looks like a giant bow tie floating on the water. The narrowed middle and flared ends, in the words of the architect, express "initial defeat and ultimate victory."
This is another reason for the renewed interest in Pearl Harbor. With Sept. 11 still fresh, and the country on alert for another terrorist attack, Americans want reassurance of eventual victory.
"There's the feeling that we did it once and we can do it again," said one man on the tour, Rich Eddy, 63, of Sheboygan, Wis. If the memorial means anything in the new century, Americans want it to mean that.
The memorial, roughly two-thirds the length of a football field, straddles the hull of the sunken Arizona. Walking from one flared end to the other, we pass through a formal entry into a large central room for ceremonies. Open-air windows look out at the water, and if you look directly below, you can see the ghostly outline of the battleship 8 feet below the surface. It rests where it sank 60 years ago.
Opposite the entrance, inside the other flared end, is a shrine room where the names of those killed on the Arizona are engraved on the marble wall.
'It was a long time ago'
Off to one side, a man dressed in white stands like a statue, except his head which slowly swivels left to right, his eyes scanning every name on the wall. It takes him awhile. There are 1,177 names. Several boat tours come and go, and he's still standing there.
He has a whispy white beard and mustache, cataract eyes that can aptly be described as sad, and a survivor's cap. His name is Robert Avalos. He is 81, a retired auto-body and fender man from South Seattle.
"I recognize a few names," he says in a raspy voice, "but it was a long time ago."
Avalos hasn't been well, and talking obviously takes effort. This is his first trip back to Pearl Harbor since the war and, he says, most likely his last. It will be the last time for a lot of the survivors. World War II vets are dying by the hundreds every day.
Avalos was 21, "a kid," at the time of the attack. He was a seaman first-class on the USS Honolulu, a light cruiser moored a few hundred feet south of the Arizona. He, like all 300 of his crewmates, like all of the Navy and the rest of the nation, never saw the attack coming, although there was a general feeling that war with Japan was imminent.
Japan was an expanding empire, and America, which had economic and military interests in Asia, was determined to stop the expansion. In June of 1941, as a response to Japan's conquest of Indochina, the U.S. froze all Japanese assets and imposed an oil embargo. It wasn't clear at the time, but Japanese leaders viewed the embargo as an act of war. Without oil, the island nation and its military machine would grind to a halt within 18 months. In one of the most daring — and many would say treacherous — military operations ever, Japan decided to cripple the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor so it could secure more lands and more oil before America could respond.
About 7:55 a.m., on a tranquil Sunday morning, the Japanese attack fleet of 350 planes, supported by 33 warships, dropped its first bombs on Pearl Harbor.
One bomb slammed through the deck of the USS Arizona and ignited its forward ammunition magazine. The ship exploded and sank in eight minutes. The death toll on the ship accounted for nearly half the total American body count. When the attack ended two hours later, the Pacific Fleet had been obliterated. Just under 2,400 people were killed, and 1,100 were wounded.
The attack united a deeply divided country and pulled the U.S. into World War II. What followed in the Pacific theater was some of the most savage fighting in the war. By the end, 300,000 Americans and more than a million Japanese soldiers were dead.
Four years after Pearl Harbor, with no end in sight for the war in the Pacific, America dropped atomic bombs in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing a quarter-million civilians, and prompting an immediate and unconditional Japanese surrender.
The terms of the surrender were signed on the USS Missouri, whose bow now faces the sunken USS Arizona.
It wasn't a racist thing but a war thing. When you fight somebody so intensely, sometimes you never stop fighting them.
"So many people suffered because of what they did," he said. "I've been carrying things a long time. I know it's not good for me. I'm working on it. I know they were following orders, just like we were."
While Avalos scanned the last of the names on the marble wall, another boat load of people came aboard the memorial.
It was a group of about 20 Japanese pilots who had taken part in the attack. They were even older than the Pearl Harbor guys. They were in their mid- to late 80s, brown and bent, with hearing aids and wrinkles and caps of their own.
The group had come under the auspices of a handful of Pearl Harbor survivors, who had in intervening years made friends with "the enemy." The Japanese group was accompanied by their American hosts.
Avalos watched them wordlessly.
The group held a private ceremony, partly in English and partly in Japanese, in which they laid a wreath at the foot of the wall of names, and then poured 60-year-old water from a World War II canteen into the waters of the harbor. It was a purifying ritual.
Then one of the American hosts, Pearl Harbor survivor Dick Fiske, a youngster at 79, played taps on his bugle. It was a long, soulful version that echoed off the marble walls and into the harbor. Afterward, one of the Japanese veterans, Yasua Matsuura, got out his own bugle and played the Japanese version of taps. It was eerily similar.
The expression on Avalos' face didn't change. The statue in him wouldn't budge, but it was clear he was listening.
At the end of the ceremony, Avalos and Fiske walked down the ramp, followed by the Japanese pilots, old men all. They creaked along together. They sat shoulder to shoulder on the same boat, crossing the harbor that linked their lives, and which, on this day, looked as peaceful as ever.
Alex Tizon can be reached at 206-464-2216 or email@example.com.
Alan Berner can be reached at 206-464-8133 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.