Lessons Learned in Hawaii from Pearl Harbor Survivors
A frequent topic of discussion in my family during the weeks since Hurricane Maria ravaged my mother’s native island of Puerto Rico is the fact that, although I have been to Hawaii frequently in the last decade, I have never once been to Puerto Rico.
I grew up my entire life listening to my parents tell stories about life in PR, and it was my dream to take the whole family on vacation one day when I finally "made it" so that they could relive their childhood and show us everything first-hand. Well, I never "made it" and my dad is now dying of cancer.
Meanwhile, we had been planning two more trips to Hawaii: one for this year, one for next year - one as a couple and one as a family. However, I felt guilty about the thought of spending money in Hawaii that I should be donating to PR. I felt guilty that I have shared a decade of beautiful experiences with my daughter in Hawaii, where she has learned about both the native culture and American history, and I have yet to take her to the island where her grandparents are from. I became so overwhelmed with guilt at turning my back on PR that I had to stop planning the Hawaii trips.
During one of these discussions I was reminded of a special time in Hawaii, one of many times where we learned something new and left with our hearts full. It was upon remembering this particular day in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor that I stopped feeling guilty about my travels to Honolulu and started feeling thankful and blessed for what I have been able to share with my daughter and what Hawaii has given us.
We landed on Oahu in early December to enjoy time at Pipeline, spectate the Honolulu Marathon, tour Pearl Harbor on Pearl Harbor Day, visit NoTwitterTodd's best friends, get tattooed and relax. We brought my mom along with us because she deserved a vacation and NoTwitterTodd was so excited to share second home and his island family with her.
When we arrived at Pearl Harbor on Pearl Harbor Day we were greeted by smiling faces despite the solemn mood. We visited the sunken remains of the USS Arizona, toured the Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park and also spent time at the Battleship Missouri and USS Oklahoma Memorials.
Then we stopped to chat with these two Pearl Harbor survivors: Electronics Technician Gilbert Meyer and Signalman 2nd class Delton "Wally" Walling.
While we had so many questions about what happened at 7:55 AM on December 7, 1941 - we simply began our conversation by thanking them for their service. My daughter already understood the devastation and loss that had occurred that day, but to have these two men tell their stories - calmly, concisely and cautiously, while still somehow managing to smile and radiate warmth & humor was really touching.
Mr. Walling happened to be at Pearl Harbor well before his shift that fateful morning in 1941- stopping by to see a friend at the tower and collect on a debt. Little did he know that his quick visit to the tower would turn into 14 hours of horror. From the 180-foot tower he watched, stunned, as the Japanese planes attacked, bombs dropping endlessly from the sky. He said the planes were so close he could see the pilots' faces. From the tower he saw it all. Death, destruction, fire. Imagining how horrifying it must have been to watch the ships explode, to watch men drown...I had to ask, "Did you think you were going to die?", to which he simply nodded yes and was quick to note that it was the heroes that died that day and in the subsequent war he fought in - not him. He cut me off before I could say it. Wally Walling doesn't consider himself a hero.
From Gilbert Meyer we learned all about the USS Utah - the "forgotten" ship that lost men that day as well. Mr. Meyer had just come off of the night shift the morning of the attack. He'd been promoted the day before, a young man with a bright future in the Navy. In the early morning hours he made his way to bed and was awakened just a few hours later when the second torpedo hit. Still in a fog from being asleep, Mr. Meyer didn't quite know what was happening, but the sound of the ship rolling over was scary and he knew he needed to get out. Fast.
I can only imagine the panic that ensued as the men, in complete darkness, raced to get out of the ship as it rolled and flipped onto its side. He was able to swim to shore, but 58 men on board the USS Utah did not survive. Despite many brave rescues of the rest of the crew - the loss was devastating.
We asked him where the USS Utah was located, why we had never heard of it and why we didn't see the memorial during the tour. That's when Mr. Meyer explained that the USS Utah is located on the West side of Ford Island, across and less than a mile away from from the USS Arizona. The public really has no idea the memorial exists because they are not allowed to enter the area without military ID since the site is still an active military installation. Like the USS Arizona, the USS Utah still has crewmen entombed within.
I could tell Mr. Meyer was happy to share this information with us, as it is his hope that those lives are also remembered.
As solemn as this all sounds, you have to believe me with I tell you they had us laughing for quite some time. They joked about how young we all looked and asked about our multiple visits to Hawaii. Finally, Mr. Walling asked, "Why don't you just stay here?", a question I've asked myself everyday since. He loves Hawaii and glows with Aloha spirit. He is proud of his service and plans to have his ashes scattered with the remains of his brothers in Pearl Harbor after he passes away.
You can tell by the smiles on our faces that meeting them was the highlight of our day. My daughter especially enjoyed talking to them, feeling like she was in a secret club being allowed to hear the truth straight from the source. She couldn't wait to share the information with her class.
We learned so much from them: the importance of history, why this "day of infamy" should never be forgotten, that we are all vulnerable, that our military is not indestructible, that people hurt, that tomorrow is not guaranteed, that the horrible things we survive will always leave scars and that, with time, scars can be beautiful and sharing the pain helps heal wounds.
I have followed the lives of both of these men since that day we met them. Both are still alive and both still visit Pearl Harbor annually, happily greeting folks at the Pearl Harbor welcome area. They sign autographs, take pics and share stories. Mr. Walling continues to speak up for veterans. Both men do their best to preserve the memory of those who served on the USS Utah.
Our trip to PR will happen. Until then, I will continue to donate money and supplies until the island bounces back – however many years that may take. I will channel my guilt into something positive: more learning experiences, more sharing, more time listening to and supporting those who feel forgotten - our veterans. As citizens of the United States, Puerto Ricans have participated in every major United States military engagement since World War I, and those vets need our help too.
I no longer feel guilt about my multiple visits to Hawaii. I just feel Aloha.