Sunday, May 22, 2011

In Infamy

"Conferences should be held in places where you don't want to be outside," has been a lament of my husband who was sent to Hawaii for continuing education. I suggested he take off an additional day to take a tour. He chose to go to Pearl Harbor; I groaned inwardly as we would have to get on a bus at six in the morning. However, since I suggested he pick, I had to go with it.

Our bus guide was Hawaiian. On the way to the harbor he told us about his auntie's experience during the bombing. She was a child at the time. It was a Sunday morning and she was outside awaiting her parents before church. She saw the incoming Japanese planes and commented that the pilots seemed to wave her and the others inside their homes. She said she never understood that, but as the years unfolded she came to understand that the Japanese were only intent on damaging the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and not the people of Hawaii. This was something I had not thought about.

Our tour included the National Park Service's film about the events at Pearl Harbor, tours of the USS Arizona Memorial, the submarine USS Bowfin, and the USS Missouri. Two pivotal issues presented were when the Americans cut off Japan's access to oil due to their aggression in China and when the U.S. Pacific Fleet moved from San Francisco to Hawaii in May of 1940; both were seen by Japan as giving them no way out. Some of the Japanese planners had been educated in America- Harvard and Princeton. The Japanese plan was to take out the U.S. Pacific Fleet so that Japan could secure its position in Asia thus access to important resources; oil has been motivating politics for a long time.

The Americans expected a Japanese attack- they moved the pacific fleet to Hawaii- but then they lined the battleships in a row as well as the planes from wingtip to wingtip at the air fields, fearing sabotage more than an air attack. Seeing Pearl Harbor in person I was most struck by its smallness even with three ships in the vicinity. Eight battleships were in place at the time of the attack. Newly deployed radar detected the presence of incoming planes but the information was dismissed when reported because some B-17s were due to arrive from California. The bus guide pointed out that the radar detected the planes coming in from the opposite direction of California; unfortunately the lieutenant in charge failed to consider this on that fateful day. All eight of the battleships were hit, but six of them were eventually returned to service by salvaging them from the bottom of Pearl Harbor. The U.S. aircraft carriers were out at sea at the time of the strike. Back to the auntie's comments, of the 2,335 killed in the attack, 68 of the dead were civilians, reflecting to some degree that the target was the fleet and not the Hawaiians.

The USS Arizona memorial was tough on the Moose- all that talk of dead bodies being trapped below, the list of the dead crew's names, and the oil "tears" flowing about in the water made him decidedly "stressed." He wanted off. People around us were somber with a few tears being shed all these years later. We sat on a bench together, out of the others' way, awaiting the Navy boat back to shore.

The tour guide on the battleship USS Missouri, where the Americans and Japanese signed the formal surrender in Tokyo Bay, made it a point to tell of MacArthur's plans of humiliation for the Japanese at the signing. The Japanese arrived in formal attire including top hats and full dress uniforms; the American sailors were instructed to end the war as they began it- in their work clothes. MacArthur also requested the tallest most intimidating sailors as side boys . These planned slights, however, were partially undone when the Colonel from Canada signed the surrender documents on the wrong line. It amused me to some degree because with my time in Japan you come to realize that the Japanese are meticulous and detailed in a way that few Americans ever strive to be. MacArthur's slights seemed petty to me and lacking in respect of a worthy foe all these years later, but he did have to make do with an incorrect signature. The tour guide also explained that the USS Missouri had removed the Japanese flags that were painted on the bridge signifying airplanes it had downed as a sign of respect for a country that was now our friend and ally.

There is one more tale to add to this day. On the tour of the USS Missouri, we were shown a barely discernable dent that was so small that I wasn't sure if I was looking at the right spot. I asked for confirmation. The dent, the size of a silver dollar or a 500¥en coin, on the starboard side was the result of a kamikaze crash by a nineteen year old Japanese pilot. From photographic evidence (snapped by the ship's cook), the pilot appeared dead before impact. The ship's crew, intending to throw his body overboard, were stopped by their captain who told them, "he was doing his job just as you would do; he deserves your respect." This call to humanity inspired the crew. A Japanese flag was hand sewn overnight by crew members, and the pilot was given a six gun salute and a proper burial at sea. Later, the ship obtained a photo of the pilot from the Japanese which included a picture of him as a child holding a toy airplane in a family photo. It reminded me of something Rickie Lee Jones said at a concert in DC, "even bad guys were once little boys in footie pajamas."

F. D. R.'s first typed draft of the speech given to Congress calling December 7, 1941, "a date that will live in infamy" was also on exhibit. Those famous words were written in pencil, canceling out the typed version that had included the word "history" from what I could glean. I was impressed by FDR's skill with words. I also had no idea that a member of Congress, a woman, voted against the U.S. going into the war, Jeannette Rankin of Montana, a life long pacifist.

A memorable tour for the lives lost and the history learned.

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