This post is about a journey that started over 80 years ago that ferried my father from a remote farm in North Dakota to the tropical paradise island of Oahu as a U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet Band Member, Musician 2nd class. Having been deprived of his connection throughout most of my childhood, I have been like a stubborn orphan seeking a familial connection denied me, and through his letters I have joined him on his journey through the tumult of World War II. I never flinched at the intergenerational trauma because, as a cult survivor, I have developed an unusual taste for the uncomfortable.
Covid had put a damper on our trip to Hawaii that had originally been planned for 2020, this change of plan allowed me more time to explore what has turned out to be a legacy that has found its final resting place at Pearl Harbor.
I have spent years, off and on, pulling together his letters, pictures, ancient negatives and periphenalia. I recently contacted members of the US Navy Pacific Fleet Band to find a suitable home for these precious artifacts that laid dormant in a closet after his death in 1996. I had the pleasure of connecting with the vibrant and dynamic Lt. Luslaida Barbosa, the Navy Pacific Fleet Bandmaster: She has an impressive resume – she is not only one of the few female US Navy Bandmasters, she is also a woman of color (Puerto Rican) and the only one who moved up the ranks while raising children. I’m honored to know her and make the aquaintance of such a trailblazer.
She met us briefly at the Arizona Memorial Visitor Center, but as we were boarding the ferry to the memorial our conversation was cut short. So I asked to meet up with her again the following week. She has also been assisting me with finding a home for my father’s trombone that he played during the war – it is now destined for the Naval School of Music in Little Creek, Virginia.
She also advised me there was a memorial ceremony at the USS Utah site for a musician from the Enterprise – Lt. Barbosa thought it was related to us – it was simply a fantastical coincidence amongst so many it seems.
On the ferry, I was accommpanied by boat-load of strangers who were oblivious to my father’s history, feeling a lack of intimacy that I had hoped for as we were shuffled around the memorial for the short time allowed. The Arizona Memorial isn’t simply a place of rememberance, but an underwater cemetery of the most profound kind; you come here to pay your respects to all those who died a ghastly death as it was sunk with precision by the Japanese on December 7, 1941. When I contemplate this gargantuan, rusting tomb emitting its black tears, I hope those surrounding me also consider all that happened that day and how a slight turn of events could have changed the course of history for the U.S. When I look up, the Mighty Mo stands guard in the distance, a sentinel, proud, defiant – unchallenged. She is all that remains of battleship row – her brethren either submerged or eventually scrapped. The power of the symbology becomes apparent: Testimonies to the beginning and the end of one of the most devastating wars in history. #neverforget #neversurrender
I left with my mental notes to contemplate the wreckage and what my father would have witnessed as the USS Enterprise steamed into the harbor the day after the attack; the sky black with smoke, the massive hulks of mangled ships, the bodies of the unrecovered, flames – layers of carnage that would be forever fused in his mind. If the Enterprise has been moored in the harbor on December 7th, I probably wouldn’t be alive – writing this blog.
Ten days later, after a lovely respite on the North Shore, my husband and I returned to Honolulu and spent our final day back at Pearl Harbor; our first stop was the USS Missouri – the Mighty Mo.
The scale and power of this battleship gave me perspective on what my father would have experienced during his service on the USS W. Virginia. The guns must have been as deafening as the emotional toll on its inhabitants.
I’m always in awe at how mankind can accomplish such feats of engineering.
There is a dent on the side of the Mo where a Kamakaze (aka Divine Wind) clipped the ship with its wing – and miraculously a ship photographer captured the exact moment of the crash. It was a failed attempt but a fitting scar; these pilots gave their lives by the thousands. My father wrote of them attacking the USS West Virginia. They did massive damage to the pacific fleet and were a force to be reckoned with.
The slow unveiling of my father’s history is like the maze of a great battleship, you can easily get lost in the corridors, trip, bang your head on the low ceilings, bump into the narrow passage ways. You pass the fortified and impregnable bulk heads thinking there is no way out, then you stumble across the engine room, the crew quarters and the mess hall. You contemplate the inception of massive turrets that hold the outer world at bay. Then you some how find your way out of the darkness into the museum level and the #neverforget history of the ship itself.
When you emerge, back on deck, you face the Arizona Memorial, the three immortal gun turrets saluting all those who perished and praising the grit of all those who survived.
I’m now standing still in the spot where the Japanese surrendered on September 2nd, 1945 that ended the war. I welled up a bit as my father was so close to being at that very spot: It would have been his final performance for the Navy. He decided to return home instead; he had survived too many conflicts and whatever twists of fate, while so many of his comrades perished – the toll of war left him devoid of any further adventure. I wonder in hindsight if he wished he had been part of such a significant, historical event.
After our mesmerizing tour of the Mighty Mo, we went to the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam to meet up with Lt. Barbosa at the Pacific Fleet Band base. It turned out Bob could not join me, as he did not have his passport and is a dual citizen. It was such a disappointment but you don’t argue with the Navy.
She took me through the building that had been housing the fleet bands since the 1940’s. I imagined my father walked these halls at some point. There are no longer bands assigned to ships so this is now the hub that holds all their offices, where they rehearse for events; I met so many of the young band members in their fatigues – their respectability was refreshing and their fascination with my father’s history utterly endearing.
Lt. Barbosa kindly drove me back to the visitor center to meet back up with Bob. Bidding my farewell, I realized I had done the right thing to cement my father’s legacy for future generations. So many I talk to, do not know what to do with their old letters and artifacts from wars gone past: All I did was contact and see who could help me – the result has been beyond what I could have ever anticipated.
We visited the WW II Aviation Museum, rode in a simulator, observed the relics of planes and bullet holes, and wandered through the hangers made familiar by Hollywood movies – but what happened here was far from Hollywood.
The Pearl Harbor Memorial not-so-gently reminds us of what we must never forget. People visit in droves and I hope they internalize the sacrifices and suffering that too many endured for our freedoms. These are not trite words, the Greatest Generation was born of tragedy and resiliency. It’s ok to exceed your comfort zone as they did.
I have felt both empowered and desolate – not like those who lost loved ones to the war – but to a memory I never had the chance to fully understand. I understand better now. Having had no scattering of ashes, I instead decided to have a burial at sea, submerging his memory into the harbor itself where his time capsule rests like a pearl, in peace amongst the ghosts of his comrades. The glass of the capsule will remain but the cap will eventually rust – the sand will drift and the photo will deteriorate. It may surface someday as beach glass – beach glass of a special kind that maybe will transfer its magic to an aspiring sailor or musician. Or if it surfaces intact there is a message there for anyone who will listen.
As the spirit world has suggested, perhaps it’s as much closure for him as it is for me.
RIP W.A Bender – you have now come full circle; the glass did not shatter, like the delicate resiliency of a human life, but it will meet its fate, as all things do, as the seal turns to rust. Ashes and dust have no place here and disappear with the wind, but the sea, in its mighty wisdom….will always remember its own.