Friday, September 9, 2011

From 12/7 to 9/11

Four years before the September 11th Attack, I was at Pearl Harbor. My wife and I had long planned a trip to Hawaii for our twenty-fifth anniversary, and we took the kids, both young teens at the time.

On our last day on the Islands, we scheduled a visit to Pearl Harbor. I'd been to the Arizona Memorial once before, and I wanted my son and daughter to have that solemn and most reverent experience; to gain some understanding of the heavy price America has always had to pay for shining a beacon of freedom throughout the world.

Upon our arrival we found all the boat trips to the Arizona Memorial booked for the the day. Ironically, about 90% of the visitors were Japanese. That bothered me, even angered me a bit. So we wandered the small park, taking in the view of the harbor and the other memorial plaques and monuments there on the shore. To assuage my pique against the Japanese tourists, I started walking in front of their camera views just as they took their shots. Passive aggressively, it seemed the least I could do.

Then something subtle happened. I didn't even notice it at the time, but later reflection brought it home.

After six brief decades as a human being…and a believer, I've found that coincidences rarely happen in life. Had there been seats on one of those boats, we four would've been able to visit the Arizona; we would've been able to stand in humbled silence before the Memorial Wall bearing the 1,172 names of sailors and marines killed when the ship was attacked on the morning of December 7, 1941. We no doubt would've been moved by the moment, gaining an indelible memory. On the other hand, had those things happened, we may never have met Dick Fiske.

I first spotted Mr. Fiske moving through the park and the gift shop as I made my photo op rounds amongst the Japanese tourists. He seemed to stand out. Somewhere in his 70's, he was a small, neat man dressed in a loose-fitting green shirt and white slacks. He sported a snow-white mustache to match his pants. His gossamer hair was white, too, but a military cap covered most of it; a little hat like you see American Legion guys wearing adorned with buttons and patches and inscriptions. I could see a Marine emblem on one side of the cap, and sergeant stripes on the other. The words U.S.S. West Virginia were embroidered on one side, and when he turned around I read "Pearl Harbor Survivor" across the back of his shirt. He carried a big white scrapbook. I was intrigued. I wanted to approach him, but was a little shy. This man was a hero, after all. As it turned out, I had no idea.

"Excuse me, sir," I said to him. "Were you on the West Virginia during Pearl Harbor?" In the American lexicon, the proper noun has become an event.

He looked straight at me, his eyes keen and bright. "I sure was, son. Would you like to hear about it?"

"Yes, sir, I would. And I'd like for my kids to hear your story, too."

He nodded with a smile, and I led him to a bench where my family sat.

He told us the events he'd experienced that Sunday morning over 50 years past, turning through the book he held showing us pictures to fit his narration. He'd been a nineteen year old Marine assigned to the Battleship West Virginia. In those days, those easy duty days in paradise, he was a bugler. It was his job that Sunday morning to go topside and play reveille for the ship's company.

He stood on the quarterdeck when the first torpedoes struck. The blast blew him across the ship. Stunned, he got to his feet. Looking astern, where the Arizona sat parked on Battleship Row, he watched as the bow of the great ship rose up out of the water followed by a massive explosion. The eruption blew him backward. Soaked in oil and water, but somehow uninjured, he got to his feet again and ran to his battle station on the bridge. Once there, he saw his captain receive mortal wounds when bomb shrapnel ripped through the windows. The ship was gone, and the abandon order was given. The young Marine jumped over the side and swam to Ford Island, helping those in the water not able to swim…those who needed help.

Dick Fiske survived that "day of infamy" at Pearl Harbor, and later 36 days on Iwo Jima. But what Dick Fiske did after the war is even more incredible. He accomplished what few of us could ever do: he forgave his enemies. Decades after the war, Fiske met Zenji Abe who'd flown a dive-bomber over Pearl Harbor. The two became friends, and Abe gave Fiske a sum of money asking him to lay two roses every month at the base of the Arizona Wall and play taps. Abe invited Fiske to Japan where he visited Ground Zero at Hiroshima playing taps at their memorial service. He continued to do both those homages for several years. In 1996, Fiske received The Order of the Rising Sun from the Japanese Emperor for his reconciliation efforts. Richard I. Fiske died in 2004 at age 82.

Here at the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 Attack, I don't know if any of us are ready to reconcile with those who attacked us that day, to forgive them. I don't think I am. Those enemies don't appear to be interested in any kind of reconciliation. It seems we daily get messages from some quarter in their camp that their on-going intent is to annihilate all Americans, every man, woman, and child. Tough to forgive people like that. They appear to be against all we believe in: the right to say and write what we want, worship how we choose, go where we please, freely choose fellow citizens to represent us in our government, help those in need, allow all citizens the opportunity to better themselves. Though not a perfect people, decent Americans have always known the difference between hatred and tolerance, tyranny and liberty.

Today we can mourn our honored dead, and pay tribute to the sacrifice of those who died for freedom's sake. Maybe by the 50th anniversary of 9/11 our country and the world will be in a place where we can find Dick Fiske's and Zenji Abe's kind of forgiveness.


My name is Phil Truman and I write novels.

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Debbie Haskins said...

Phil, that was a beautiful tribute. Thank you for writing it.

Debbie Haskins said...

This was wonderful and so well written. Thank you for sharing it.

Susan Case said...

Wonderful story. Thanks.

MAC said...

How lucky you were to not be able to get on the boat. You learned more from that man than any guide could have taught you about the event.

I do have to admit that I too have a hard time forgiving those responsible for 12/7 and 9/11. Both have been times where so many lives have been lost. And for what? Greed and control which to me go hand in hand. It so sad that people can't just live peacefully together without fighting like a bunch of kids.

Chipper Muse said...

This is a wonderful piece of writing, and very thought-provoking. What a blessing to be able to talk to a WWII Pearl Harbor survivor. Thanks for sharing!

Jamie Fredric said...

Wonderful tribute. We should never forget what our heroes have done for all of us.