The Morning the Planes Came

It’s 5:50 a.m., and my husband and I have places we’d rather be, but too bad. We’re waiting for a bus to come to our Honolulu hotel and take us to Pearl Harbor.

It’s my fault. I’ve dragged my husband along, so he’s grumbling about how he could still be sleeping, but, oh no. It’s because I grew up in a more jingoistic family than he did, he says. Which is true. But that was a long time ago and it doesn’t completely define me the way it once did. All I know is I can’t leave Hawaii without going to Pearl Harbor.

The tour bus driver is Kevin. He’s a bigtime extrovert and morning person. He introduces us as “Texas” to the rest of the passengers. Prompted, they scream, “Aloha, Texas!” to us. We have now been in Hawaii for a week and I like it a lot, but I think I may have reached my “Aloha!” limit. Also, I am not a screamer, much less a group screamer, especially at the crack of dawn.

We drive, pausing to take on new passengers. Alohas to England and Minnesota. “God save the Queen!” Kevin says.

We arrive before 7 a.m. to find long lines already formed in the parking lot. Once inside, we see a few short documentaries about the attack. We peer at photos of the U.S. soldiers’ and sailors’ faces. They were young, brawny, full of bravado. It was the military more than seven decades ago, so they were almost all white men.

We tour a submarine, we walk around a battleship — this time led by some blowhard volunteer who repeatedly announces the U.S. Congress isn’t doing its job. Otherwise, the USS Missouri (a fine ship! It could be useful again! You never know!) would be in better shape. We should all write our Congressmen, he says. It’s a real disgrace about the Missouri.

We travel a short boat ride to get to the memorial for the USS Arizona, which still lies beneath the surface with the remains of 1,177 men who died that day. We have been repeatedly instructed to be quiet and respectful while at this memorial — but I can’t imagine anyone not feeling the immense weight of what lies below.

Back on land, my husband and I wander around. Everyone else takes constant photos and videos, which always makes me question whether they’ll need to look at the visual evidence to know where they’ve been since they never really saw it in the first place.

We order food and sit. My husband tries to call his father, now 95, who was stationed in England and flew bombing missions during World War II. I think about my parents, and how they would reminisce about Pearl Harbor and the war, how they would marvel it had been 20 years since the attack, then 30, then more, till they were no longer here to tell the story.

Like my father-in-law, my father served in Europe. He never wanted to talk about the war. He and my mother always disapproved of my husband and me owning German, then Japanese cars. What was wrong with Detroit?

I keep wondering what they and their whole generation would make of our group of onlookers and our era — with our flipflops, our T-shirts, our cell phones, our video cams, our bottled waters, our news of Detroit’s bankruptcy. How must we look to them? Would they appreciate the fact we still come here and remember one of the defining events of their lives — and in the history of the world?

That brief remembrance was why I insisted on our coming, I think. But, too, I wanted to hang onto a remaining shred of clarity about the world, when the villains and heroes were easily and clearly distinguished and we were on the good side. Definitely on the good side. Remember? (But remember, too, the mostly white male faces; you can’t call the 1940s the good old days.)

My husband says his dominant emotion is just sadness at the sheer waste of war — how human beings continue to make the same deadly mistakes millennium after millennium, how it’s always the old men who send the young to be slaughtered.

Of course, I say, of course, you’re right. But we were still the better side — and I wouldn’t want to be speaking Japanese now. On the whole, I still prefer victory.

Even if I have to reach back decades to find what any sane, informed person would call a victory. The world’s turned murky and staggeringly complicated since World War II. You can’t trust any side completely, not even your own.

When Kevin drops us off, he screams, “Aloha, Texas!” once more. In retrospect, it’s nice to have a term you can use for both greeting and departure. Makes a lot of sense in a world like this.

(Copyright 2013 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read one of my favorite stories about how traveling with two men is twice as insane as traveling with one



7 comments… add one
  • I’m glad you made the trip, Ruth. (And I think I’ve been on Kevin’s bus.)

  • thanks for sharing your thoughts on visiting Pearl Harbor, Ruth. It’s a place I’d like to get to one of these days.

  • msue Link

    We were in Hawaii when 9/11 happened. Like you, Pearl Harbor was a place I wanted to visit, but it was closed immediately after the attacks. On the morning were were scheduled to leave, the memorial reopened and, by sheer coincidence, we were on the first boat following the 9/11 disaster. Everyone rode in silence to the Arizona, lost in thought about the eerie similarities between the two events. It was impossible to separate the somber stories of that 1942 attack and the attack our nation has just endured. Change a few names, a few faces, and the memorial could have been about the twin towers or the Pentagon. At least that is how it felt as we walked around, quietly, trying not to disturb each others grief. People were just so sad. I talked to my father not long after, trying to convey the experience. I’m still not sure I did it justice.

  • War is a racket.

  • Craig Smith Link

    My parents were married December 7, 1941. Timing was never a strong suit in my family anyway , but this at least gave my father a leg up in remembering their anniversary. It was the only good thing about that day . They couldn’t spell xenophobia but they could act it out. From my time removed vantage it looked like a great big pile of irony with the world shrinking daily allies and enemies seemed blurred at best.
    Glad you had a chance to see for yourself what infamy looks like.

  • Christine Link

    I have so much respect for what people of that generation lived through, and how it shaped their values and their lives. We are in Japan where they are just now having their annual remembrance of the end of the war. It’s always interesting for me as a former historian to see how different countries shape and frame their own history of what happened. War is terrible for everyone on all sides.

  • When I visited Pearl Harbor, I stood shoulder to shoulder with Japanese visitors. We saw the same films and exhibits but I’m sure that we didn’t process it the same way. Our parents would probably squirm with the idea that the exhibits now include a version of the Japanese viewpoint. No matter how they died (or for what reason), it’s still somber to stand above the U.S.S. Arizona. One thing about history: one must be standing at that place and in that moment of time to truly understand the actions of men and women. Looking back from our vantage point doesn’t cut it.

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