Defining Moments

uss arizona memorialIt was a breezy April morning, and our family was chugging across Pearl Harbor aboard a U.S. Navy boat.  Ahead of us was the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial, gleaming white in the sun.  Behind us was the visitor center, where we had just watched a moving documentary film about the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941.  My husband and I took this tour quite a few times when we lived in Hawaii, but this was our kids’ first visit, and we wanted to be sure they experienced it too.  Our boat reached the dock and stopped just behind a group of divers.  We disembarked and went up the ramp to the memorial.

As you might know, the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial sits just above the wreckage of the ship itself, perpendicular to the sunken hull.  The central area is open, with views of the sky, the water and the ship below, where 1,177 crewmen who lost their lives on December 7 are still entombed.  The names of these men are engraved on the rear wall of the shrine room, at the far end of the memorial.  I can’t overstate the effect of seeing all those names carved in white marble, covering the entire wall – it’s staggering.

arizona survivorsI was contemplating this when I glanced down in front of me and noticed a smaller marker which was also engraved with names.  Somehow, I didn’t remember ever seeing that before.  The top of the marker read “U.S.S. Arizona Survivors Interred With Their Shipmates.”  I realized that these must be some of the 334 crewmen who lived through the attack on December 7 but chose to make Pearl Harbor their final resting place.

That really caught my attention.  After all, these men had lived on for decades after the war.  They had put down roots and established lives thousands of miles away from Pearl Harbor, with homes and careers and children tying them to their communities.  And yet, they didn’t choose to be buried in the family plot.  When the time came, they wanted to join their fallen shipmates.

For these men, the attack on Pearl Harbor was undoubtedly a defining moment – a single incident that influenced the rest of their lives.  Whatever else they became later – fathers, businessmen, leaders – they were first and foremost U.S.S. Arizona survivors.  The fact that there were so few of them made this distinction even more significant.  Did they feel thankful that their lives were spared on December 7?  Did they feel guilty that their shipmates’ lives were lost?  In either case, I’m sure that the attack was never far from their minds and that being laid to rest at Pearl Harbor was their way of coming full circle.

The truth is that we all have defining moments, both big and small, in our own lives.  The time my  husband and I spent in Hawaii was something of a defining moment for us.  We arrived in 1996 in our mid-20’s, with two incomes and no kids.  We left in 1999 pushing 30 and expecting our first child.  I was beginning a new phase of life as a full-time mom.  My husband was on his way to graduate school and a new path in his Army career.  There’s no doubt that the choices we made in Hawaii changed the course of our lives and defined who we are today.  To return there 15 years later with our three children felt like our own way of coming full circle.

Are you wondering what the divers out on the dock were up to?  Probably just routine maintenance that day, but National Park Service divers also have the sacred duty of returning the remains of U.S.S. Arizona survivors to their ship.  Following a private service at the memorial, the divers insert an urn containing the cremated remains into a gun turret under the water.  Then the urn slides down into the hull of the ship, reuniting the crewman with his shipmates in the place that truly defined all of their lives.  It’s a little bit like a homecoming, and one hopes that it allows an old sailor to finally be at rest.

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