Chesterton Tribune

70th anniversary: Pearl Harbor vets from two nations remembered by Chesterton's Bernie Doyle

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At 7:39 a.m. local time, they were just men in uniform, many of them just boys. Not quite awake maybe, maybe hung over, flush from last night’s poker game or busted, thinking about Christmas leave, that nurse on the beach, Sunday supper back home.

At 7:40 a.m., they were the last-ditchers of a forlorn hope, swarmed, swamped, fighting shipboard infernos, unloosing desperately at the Japanese aircraft from the AA batteries or pot-shotting defiantly on the ground with small arms, tending the wounded, bleeding, burning.

The butcher’s bill: 2,389 servicemen and civilians killed—1,177 of them interred forever in the bowels of USS Arizona when it exploded catastrophically at its moorings on Battleship Row—and another 1,178 wounded.

Today, 70 years later, the survivors have gathered again at this haunted place, old men now and frail, to exorcise their ghosts, or commune with them.

Chesterton Town Manager Bernie Doyle knows many of them. As a ranger in the National Park Service, he had his first tour of duty at the USS Arizona Memorial in the 1990s, then served a second (2002-06) as chief of operations there (since re-named the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument).

“At Pearl Harbor it’s always Dec. 7,” Doyle says. “When you go to work, when you wake up in the morning, it’s Dec. 7, 1941. You see the same vistas the soldiers and sailors saw, the same blue skies. You smell the same salt of the ocean. And the same smell of the oil. The USS Arizona is still leaking fuel oil, four to eight quarts a day. The survivors call it black tears.”

Some 1.5 million people visit the National Monument every year, 4,500 every day from around the world, some of them—though not so many any more—survivors.

“They all tell the identical story but also a different one,” Doyle says. “The key events are pretty much the same. They remember seeing Japanese aircraft coming over, thinking they’re U.S. planes on maneuver. They remember disbelieving an attack was even possible, until the first explosions. That’s the common thread but then it breaks off into the role they personally played that morning. And those stories are as varied as could possibly be. ‘That’s where I was, I was on guard duty,’ or “I was at Hickham’ or ‘I was at mess.’”

The responsibility shouldered by NPS rangers who keep this shrine is a great one, Doyle says. “A lot of the visitors are tourists. They’re in Hawaii on vacation, to have a good time. So when they come to the USS Arizona Memorial, they need to go through a decompression process, so to speak, especially the younger generation who have such a compressed view of the war. They see an orientation film first that sets the tone, that tells why Japan felt compelled to attack and how the U.S. reacted to the attack.”

Still, Doyle says, “It’s the human story most people want to talk about,” not the U.S. oil embargo against Japan, not the strategic emergence of carrier task forces, not the conspiracy theories. The visitors want to feel this place, to honor it in their hearts. “You have to give them their space, especially those of the Greatest Generation, you have to give them time to reflect on what was likely the seminal event in their lives, along with the Great Depression.”

As chief of operations at the USS Arizona Memorial, Doyle oversaw the activities of a host of personnel: the law enforcement and interpretive rangers, the historians, the technicians, the curators. But he was also a member of a three-man dive team tasked with laying to rest the remains of USS Arizona crewmen—some 300 survived the battleship’s demise—who wish at the end to find peace with their fallen comrades. That service is conducted in privacy, after hours, with full military honors, a 21-gun salute volleyed by a USMC firing squad, the colors trooped by a naval honor guard. The dive team then enters the water and places a sealed urn containing the crewman’s ashes in the No. 4 barbette, the circular armored plating protecting the 14-inch gun’s turret. “It’s always emotional,” Doyle says. “It’s the most rewarding thing I ever did in my career with the National Park Service.”

The survivors’ memories are long, Doyle says, and often bitter. “There’s still a lot of animosity against the Japanese, not because they were our enemies but because they prosecuted a sneak attack. ‘It was unfair,’ the survivors say. That caused more animosity against the Japanese than anything else.”

Yet in his time at the USS Arizona Memorial, Doyle was privileged to witness the beginnings of a reconciliation between the men who survived the attack on Dec. 7 and those who made it, as his good friend Dick Fiske, a USMC bugler on the bridge of the USS West Virginia when it took a torpedo amidships—killing Capt. Mervyn Bennion—took the hand of Lt. Zenji Abe, an aviator who flew a Val dive bomber in the second wave and was one of the handful of Japanese aviators who survived the war. Abe returned to Japan and established a fund which, every month, paid for roses to be laid at the USS Arizona Memorial. “Those roses symbolically represented everyone who lost his life that day and then Dick would play Taps,” Doyle said. “I recall Dick’s saying, ‘Let’s see if we can’t bring the hostilities to an end after 50 years.’ Dick was genuinely reconciled.”

What were Abe’s own feelings about the attack? “I never got that far into his psyche,” Doyle says. “But he would say that there’s no nobility in war, that it was futile and he was just happy to be alive.”

In general, Doyle adds, “The Japanese felt they were serving the Emperor. They felt Japan’s self-interests were being threatened by an expanding U.S. They felt they were serving a noble cause.”

Only 55 Japanese airmen lost their lives in the attack on Pearl Harbor, against 2,400 Americans. The two-hour, two-wave attack did succeed in sinking a pair of battleships—the USS Arizona and the USS Oklahoma—yet six other battleships damaged were repaired and later returned to service, along with three light cruisers and two destroyers. The U.S. Navy’s own carriers, the main prize, were on patrol at the time and escaped unscathed and just seven months later, on June 4, 1942, three of them would put paid to four of the six Japanese carriers which launched the attack.

Today, at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, veterans, VIPs, heads of state, even celebrities, are marking the 70th anniversary of the attack in ceremonies and events which took the better part of a year to plan and organize, Doyle says.

Yet what Doyle remembers most poignantly of his days at the USS Arizona Memorial is the first time he stood there alone, over the water, at night, thinking of the crewmen entombed forever below the waves. “It was an intense reflection on my part, how the ship symbolizes this nation’s entry into a war which cost 55 million lives. It was a haunting experience. It’s a haunting place. NPS staff come and go. But when you’re there, you’re a temporary steward of something very special.”


Posted 12/7/2011