Pearl Harbor reminds us of veterans' sacrifices
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"The solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice on the altar of freedom."
Abraham Lincoln,from "A letter to Mrs. Bixby"
Nowhere, in all the places of honor I've stood, have I felt the terrible price of freedom so keenly as I did at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, commonly known as "The Punchbowl."
Puowaina crater, the original Hawaiian name for this huge, bowl-shaped dip in the volcanic landscape, means "Hill of Sacrifice." Among the 13,000 World War II veterans interred there are 776 of those who died in the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on the American Pacific fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor. But in all, the Punchbowl is the final resting place for more than 50,000 veterans of war, some of their dependents and some honored civilians.
The grounds are breathtaking in their beauty. Along the main avenue beside the greenbelt that leads to the memorial sites, a long row of monkeypod trees, meticulously manicured, stand like sentries over the hallowed grounds.
One structure is etched with the names of all those missing from World War II, their bodies either buried at sea or lost in battles. Another wall is dedicated to the Unknowns. And then there are the enormous fields of headstones for the honored dead from all our 20th-century wars.
The humid air of Hawaii seems to hang particularly heavy over this place, and visitors seem to talk in whispers or low murmurs, as if to keep from disturbing the final rest of these honored dead.
As it turned out, the island of Oahu is home to another solemn place of memory to those who gave all. The Arizona Memorial, a white arched bridge that actually spans the sunken remains of the battleship for which it is named, was equally moving.
Again, I noticed people spoke so softly as to be unheard a few feet away. Even children were well behaved and quiet, either by direction or some inexplicable knowledge of where they were and what it meant.
And the Japanese tourists walking the memorial were especially reverent and solemn-faced, fully realizing what had happened here as they gazed into the water at the sunken superstructure of the Arizona.
As I leaned over a railing and gazed down into the water, a small black dot suddenly rose from the depths and broke into a rainbow oil slick when it hit the surface.
It was fuel oil from the old ship, still leaking after more than half a century.
They call these drops the "sailor's tears," because more than 1,000 American sailors are still entombed inside the ship. Some old veterans of the Arizona who lived through the attack have had their ashes interred inside the ship as a last tribute to their shipmates.
And walking the grounds of the Punchbowl or the bridge over the Arizona, one thought more than any other kept coming to mind: Every name on the walls, every sailor inside the Arizona, every single person who gave their lives for America had a unique story, people who loved them, lives of promise ended much too soon.
As President Lincoln noted in his famous letter to Mrs. Bixby, so many families paid the price along with their sons and daughters.
We are so deeply in their debt. God bless them all.
Jim Bishop is a retired executive editor of the Advocate. He lives in Victoria.