By Karen S. Spangler, Managing Editor, Ho`okele
As I drove to Pearl Harbor this past Sunday morning, I tried to imagine what it must have been like on Dec. 7, 1941. That day was also a peaceful Sunday morning, palm trees waving gently in the breeze, a brilliant sun shining down from blue skies, island residents enjoying a myriad of activities.
Looking at the calm, blue waters of the harbor, I found it difficult to imagine the tragedy and destruction those many years ago as Japanese Zeroes swooped down from the skies to attack the Pacific fleet in the harbor. I couldn’t imagine what it was like 73 years ago—mighty Navy ships heavily damaged and sinking, the oil-slicked waters of the harbor a flaming inferno, death and destruction everywhere.
Those who were there— who survived—remember that day vividly. And throughout the year, it’s a regular event here at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam—Pearl Harbor survivors who return to pay their respects to their fallen shipmates. It’s a visit filled with memories as they see the names engraved on the wall in the Shrine Room of the memorial.
As they stand at the well on the memorial and look down into the depths of the Pacific Ocean, they view the outline of the battleship USS Arizona below the water’s surface. Remembering, their tears mingle with the droplets of oil which still seep from the sunken battleship.
There are other points of interest on their journey— such as the hull of the sunken USS Utah off Ford Island and the adjacent USS Utah Memorial which honors those who still lie entombed. Also on Ford Island, a 10-foot high Hawaiian bluestone rock that was donated by the Navy Club—and was the first memorial dedicated to those who lost their lives during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—is situated on a grassy vantage point overlooking the Arizona Memorial.
But some Pearl Harbor survivors return for another reason—to join their shipmates.
The cremains of shipmates who wish to be interred in the hull of the sunken USS Arizona or USS Utah are carried to the wreckage by divers. A ceremony accompanying each interment renders honors with all of the military elements— a rifle salute, a lone bugler’s melancholy playing of Taps, and a flag which is folded in the veteran’s memory.
Cecil Calavan was one such survivor who chose the remains of the USS Utah as his final resting place. In a sunset ceremony this recent Dec. 6, he was placed in eternal rest aboard the ship. Cecil, who was a young 17-year-old seaman second class at the time of the attack, was one of the heroes of that day as he lived through an experience that changed his life.
He continued to love his former ship, the USS Utah, and later served as the president of the USS Utah Survivors’ Association until his death Aug. 14 of this year.
Although interment of cremains in the USS Arizona and USS Utah is limited to survivors of those ships, other Pearl Harbor survivors can choose to have their ashes scattered in the harbor in the waters of the blue Pacific. And many of them do.
Those interments and ash-scattering ceremonies take place year round, but it is especially symbolic that some choose Dec. 7, the anniversary of the 1941 attack, as the time to return to their shipmates.
During ceremonies held this recent Dec. 7, Navy Chief Petty Officer Robert C. Knight and Machinist’s Mate 2nd Class Harry E. Smith were honored and returned to be with their shipmates as their ashes were scattered near the USS Utah Memorial.
At the time of the attack, Smith was aboard the destroyer USS Talbot. Knight, who was assigned to an aviation squadron at Kaneohe Bay on that day, was at Pearl Harbor waiting for his aircraft to be repaired.
Of the original 554 survivors of the USS Arizona, there are now only nine known survivors who are still living. Over the years, the numbers of those survivors of the “Greatest Generation” have drastically dwindled.
But even though they are now in their 90s, they still make the pilgrimmage to Pearl Harbor. It was a poignant scene as they returned for this year’s commemoration—some confined to wheelchairs, others standing, humble, silent, heads bowed, as the solemn ceremony unfolded in this sacred place.
The Pearl Harbor survivors have carried the painful memories of the catastrophic event at Pearl Harbor for more than 73 years. They humbly express their gratitude that their lives were spared, along with sadness for the loss of their shipmates.
And as their numbers continue to dwindle, their voices fading to mere whispers, they still remember what happened at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. They are thankful to be among those who survived, while remembering and paying respects to their fellow Sailors and Marines who were lost.
For many of these heroes of another generation, their last tribute takes place at Pearl Harbor—in their final resting place with former shipmates.
It is up to each one of us to remember and honor their selfless sacrifices and to be thankful.
Let us never forget Pearl Harbor and all of those who gave so much.