Thursday, May 24, 2012

Time to honor the courageous

5/23/12 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser

Flag over USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor

Memorial Day is coming up. This is a time to remember and praise those who have sacrificed their lives and died in honor of our country. Barbecues and the Indy 500 are optional. Respect is mandatory.

A few years ago my husband and I visited the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A sobering experience awaited us on that bright sunny day as well as a new appreciation for the sacrifice and significance of our country’s annual Memorial Day.

In the visitor’s center we watched the horrifying video of Dec. 7, 1941s “Day of Infamy:” That day Japanese fighter planes attacked Battleship Row on the U.S. base at Pearl Harbor. The assault by 361 aircraft, launched from six carriers came in two waves. It lasted less than two hours, claimed the lives of more than 2,500 people; wounded 1,000 more and damaged or destroyed 18 ships and about 300 airplanes.

During the film, we were seated with folks from around the world. Most were there out of respect; some because of family connections or historical interest; others came out of curiosity because they were in Oahu. Everyone became quiet and respectful as the reality and horror of war caught by old newsreels sunk in.

The footage clearly shows that the firebombs’ destruction was met with unbelievable courage and heroism. It was hard to watch. These men were real super heroes. This was life and death—not a movie.

After the video we walked down a gangway and boarded a ferry to the memorial—one of the most sacred places in the pantheon of American history. Some have said the spirits of the dead still speak as the ship leaks diesel fuel dubbed the “Black tears of the Arizona.” Others say that she will keep crying until the last survivor from the ship passes away.

Arriving at the memorial, we disembarked and walked across a brilliant white platform to the 184-foot long structure that spans the mid-portion of the sunken battleship. It consists of three sections: the entry room; the assembly room and the shrine room where the names of those killed on the Arizona are engraved on the marble wall.

Half of all those killed in the attack that day were on the famed USS Arizona. She took a direct hit from a Japanese torpedo. Only a few hundred survived the massive inferno. The 1,177 men that died in the fireball were entombed under our feet. Only a handful of those who survived are still alive and most are unable to travel to Hawaii and pay homage to their mates. 

One of those survivors is Louis Conter, a young sailor who was standing watch on the quarterdeck of the USS Arizona when Japanese bombers attacked. He attends every anniversary and lays a wreath over the Arizona in memory of the dead, remembering how he and the surviving sailors spent days helping put out fires and retrieving bodies on their ship.

“We worked non-stop for days after the attack,” he said. “It was hot as hell and we would work all day and all night long but we were young and had a job to do. We can’t forget that…the ones still aboard the ship are the heroes.” Conter retired as a lieutenant commander.

The USS Arizona site remained largely untouched until 1950 when Admiral Arthur Radford, Commander in Chief, Pacific erected a flagpole from the sunken ship to fly proudly above the water. A commemorative plaque was placed at the base of the flagpole and the flag flies proudly every day as a tribute to the ship’s lost crew.

Suggestions for a memorial at the site were suggested as early as 1943 but it wasn’t until the Territory of Hawaii established the Pacific War Memorial Commission that the ball got rolling. In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, approved the creation of the USS Arizona Memorial. Hawaii became a state in 1959. The memorial was dedicated in 1962.

It was built in part thanks to Elvis Presley who had recently finished a two-year stint in the U.S. Army. Presley performed a benefit concert at Pear Harbor’s Block Arena that raised over $50,000—more than 10-percent of the Memorial’s final cost.

Many Pearl Harbor survivors choose to be buried at sea with their comrades when they die; an ancient tradition. The survivor of any Pearl Harbor ship bombing can have their ashes scattered over the place in the harbor where their ship was located during the attack.

Survivors who were assigned to the USS Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941, have the unusual right to have their cremated remains interred inside gun turret four by National Park Service divers. April 1982, the ashes of retired Navy Chief Petty Officer Stanley M. Teslow were the first to be placed. Since then, more than 30 surviving crewmembers have rejoined their shipmates in a simple and private ceremony.  

The cremated remains of the sailor are placed in a watertight urn. Then, along with family members, a Navy chaplain and an honor guard, they are escorted to the ship. The two-bell memorial service includes a rifle salute and a benediction.

As Taps echoes in the background, the urn is carried from to the dock area and officially given to the chief diver. The divers swim around the third turret to the fourth gun turret to find a 5-1/2” crevice to place the urn. It remains underwater forever. The individual re-united with his shipmates for all time.

At 3 p.m., Monday, May 28, take a few moments of silence to remember and honor those who have died in service of our country. Stop whatever you’re doing, join hands with friends and family and ask God’s protection for those who serve us still. Let’s keep the memorial in Memorial Day.

Note: Most facts have been taken from the National Park Service web pages.

Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart.

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