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Monday, May 28, 2012

The Heroes of Kaneohe

May 28, 2012, Memorial Day.

It was a chilly December morning. Seven a.m and the temperature was stuck in the low 70’s. Forty sailors stood for muster on the tarmac outside the main hangar. There were no real runways at Kaneohe Naval Air Force base yet since the only plane the sailors were servicing was the PBY Catalina “flying boat”. There were 36 of them spread around and their runway of choice was the calm area trailing behind steaming battleships. It was a typical Sunday morning for the sailors. Stand for muster, proclaim ‘Present’ when their names were called, then report to their duty station to fix or maintain the PBY’s. One of the sailors standing muster was a 21 year old Seaman First Class, or ‘E3’. He hailed from Fort Kent Maine, jumping from a short stint with the National Guard to the US Navy in the summer of 1940. His name was William Henry Anderson, son of a farmer and bridge construction laborer. He was a smart young man, achieving a co-valedictorian award upon graduation from high school. He tested well in the Navy so they put him to work as an aircraft mechanic. Up until December 7, 1941, aircraft repair work was pretty predictable and mundane for the sailors on the tarmac. Billy, as his friends called him, had no interest in politics and did not follow world events, even though there were many, many world events probably worth following at the time. He was barely 20 years old when he joined the Navy. Jobs were scarce in America and the Navy offered exciting travel, guaranteed paychecks, and a Hawaiian deployment. Without factoring in a major change in America’s peace status, a stint in the Navy seemed like a pretty sweet deal.

December 7, 1941, 7am, Kaneohe Naval Air Force base, Oahu, Hawaii

The sailors were standing muster when one of them first spotted the first Japanese Zeros headed their way from the North. There was initially disbelief, eye rubbing, and denial. The CO barked out some orders and they all ran to various defensive positions around the hangar. Billy ran into the hanger, unbolted a machine gun from a PBY, walked it over to a work table next to a window, clamped it into a vice, and started defending his country through the window. It was a hellacious attack. Virtually all the PBYs were demolished. 20 sailors died. But Billy, thank God, survived and lived to marry his future sweetheart, my mother, in 1951. Talking to me about what happened that day was not something Dad wanted to do until I was in my 30’s. A couple interesting tidbits shared by Dad about that December. First, all sailors were ordered to bring their Navy white uniforms to the mess hall. The uniforms were dumped into a huge vat of coffee in order to color them so they would provide some degree of camouflaging. Everyone was expecting the Japanese to invade as part of their plan. Sometime shortly after the attack, Billy was ordered on a detail to the bay to help paint some US plane parts to look like Japanese Zeros. The painted pieces were scattered in the bay where they were made part of a short video by a mainland movie director. The video bragged about all the Japanese planes that were shot down. The mainland public needed to hear such things, even if vastly exaggerated.

The Arizona Memorial

Dad was actually stationed on the USS California up until late November, 1941, just 2 weeks before the attack. The USS California was moored directly in front of the USS Arizona. You might say Billy lucked out to get transferred to Kaneohe 2 weeks before the attack. Both the Arizona and the California were sunk where they were moored. The California was salvaged and re-deployed. The Arizona remains underwater where it sank and is now the main attraction of the Arizona Memorial. 105 men were killed on the California, 1177 men died on the Arizona.

In 2001, on a business trip that spanned a weekend, I visited the Arizona Memorial, starting with the visitors center. In front of the visitors center is a short walk to an area facing the bay that has bronze plaques for every ship that suffered casualties that fateful day. Each plaque provides a list of names of the men who died on the vessel. I paused at the USS California plaque and read each name. I was pretty choked up, grateful that Dad was not on the California that day 60 years ago. After awhile I used my cell phone and called Billy. He answered. I told him where I was. He asked me to check some names for him. Dad came up with a dozen names of friends he had when he was stationed on the battleship. After 60 years... He remembered a dozen names of men he worked with and never saw again when he was redeployed to Kaneohe! That alone brought real tears to my eyes. Tears of joy soon followed when none of the names Billy asked about showed up on the bronze plaque of casualties. At least his friends survived the first battle of the war.

Later I visited a similar memorial area for all missing, unaccounted for, US submarines that served in WW2. I read the story on each plaque.

Sometimes its easy to forget how we got to where we are as a country. We’ve fought many battles, small and large, since the country was founded. Each an every war made us who we are. And there were always the legions of young men willing to protect America and it’s freedoms. They don't seem to want to get down into the weeds on every war and determine for themselves if this war or that war is just or unjust. To them, the point is moot. America comes first. Today is the day to recognize the ultimate sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of young men, all the way back to the US Civil war, who put their country above all else. We owe them a huge debt.