“And then came December 7, 1941, and all hell broke loose…I had had just eaten my breakfast in the mess hall, and had just laid down across my bunk when Harry Albright came running through the barracks saying something about the Japanese attacking us. He didn’t need to say that twice. At the time I was living in the guard house above the jail where they kept the prisoners. I put on my shirt as I was running down the stairs, strapped on my 45 and jumped on the motorcycle. As I headed toward the main gate at Hickam Field, a Japanese plane came at me strafing. I immediately laid the cycle down and dove under a car. After he was gone, I continued on to the main gate.
Then all of a sudden there was huge explosion in the harbor. I turned around to look toward the harbor and saw a huge mushroom cloud. It was only later that I realized that what I saw was the sinking of the USS Arizona. On that terrible day, 1,077 men went down with the ship and are still entombed there to this day in the bottom of the harbor. I shortly found out that 143 people were killed eating breakfast, the very place that I left 10 minutes earlier. There was a direct hit on the mess hall…On that day; we also lost the USS Oklahoma and the USS Utah.”
He shared with the students the chaos that surrounded the harbor and Hickam Field that day. He talked of finding friends who had not escaped death. Suddenly the old saying that “every day in Oahu was like Sunday on the farm,” was no longer accurate. Pandemonium ruled on all sides.
On that disturbing day, as darkness came over Hickam Field, Mr. Swanson realized that the flag, tattered as it was, had not been taken down. He said, “Albert Lloyd and I took the flag down and folded it the best we could for as shattered as it was.”
The students arrived in Hawaii with these stories in mind. My heart will never allow me to forget the faces and emotions shown by the students as we stood on the USS Arizona Memorial. Mr. Swanson rose from his wheel chair and with the help of the band directors placed a memorial wreath at the foot of the wall with the names of those who were lost on the USS Arizona including his cousin, Edward O’Neal, and his best friend, Lewis Howard. He silently but openly wept as he sat back in his chair. If you can imagine, there were over 100 teenagers noiseless and most with tears streaming down their faces. Something astonishing happened that day. A terrible day in our country’s history came to life in these students as they felt the impact of one who had lived it. Up until that moment, it had just been history.
Friday after Thanksgiving of 2011, Mr. Swanson returned as the grand Marshall of the Waikiki parade with 15 other survivors, 15 bands from the Mainland, and 20 bands from the islands to mark the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. My husband and I sat on the review stand, this time as special guests of Mr. Durward Swanson. Along with us sat the current general from Hickam Field, past generals, and other military personnel. The importance of this piece of history and the appreciation for the participants of this piece of history were made very evident as all those on the review stand stood and all those who were in full uniform saluted each and every one of these survivors. One could not escape the feeling of respect and reverence that was felt for each of these men.
As the final band marched in front of the review stand, it stopped marching but continued to play. Their 90 year old “adopted” survivor stepped out of his car with his trumpet in hand. He was introduced to the crowd as the man who played Taps on the night of the attack.
Yes…he did play Taps …70 years later…to commemorate a piece of our history and to honor those who have died in conflict since Pearl Harbor. Not a dry eye abounded within the parade spectators.
I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to have rubbed shoulders with and have listened to these honorable men. These men who belong to “the greatest generation” are dwindling in number; their stories will fade. Senator Daniel Inouye who witnessed these attacks as a young man in Honolulu said on the Senate floor, “As we continue to lose members of the Greatest Generation, those who witnessed the attack, lived through the war and saw the world change, we must remember the events of December 7.” These students, who have taken the opportunity to empathize with the overwhelming narratives of these survivors will always comprehend that freedom isn’t free.
They will remember Pearl Harbor!