On August 1st this year, my father’s ashes were interred at Punchbowl cemetery in Honolulu, Hawaii. He was a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack, and spent the first two years of the war on a destroyer in the Western Pacific before the Navy sent him to college in their V-12 officer training program. After a 25 year career he retired as a Commander, then worked several decades more before a long and active retirement. He served as president of his local retired officers association as well as in several leadership roles in many other civic groups. He passed away in January 2015 at the age of 92.
The Navy gave us a ceremony that was especially moving, complete with military honor guard, a ritual folding of the flag and presentation to my eldest sister, and three volleys of a 5-gun salute. A Punchbowl volunteer, a retired navy chief petty officer, recounted for us my father’s experience on the day, about how at the very beginning of the attack, before anyone knew what was happening, he watched one of the first Japanese planes fly over his ship on its way to drop a torpedo on the battleship Oklahoma, and how in the resulting rush to battle stations he jumped into the water to cut loose the captain’s gig so it wouldn’t jam the ship’s propellers as it got underway. At this point in the chief’s recounting, a lone plane flew across the patchy blue sky above the Punchbowl, an eerie apparition from the past. Later, as we placed my father’s urn into the crypt, a gentle rain began to fall. In Hawaii they say this constitutes a blessing from the gods, and I tried to take comfort in that.
The chief petty officer called my father a hero, but he was never especially comfortable with being called that simply for happening to be in a certain place at an epochal moment in history. And serving in the wartime Navy wasn’t so much heroism as civic duty to him, something every one ought to do as a matter of course. To me though he was heroic in another way, in a way we all could strive to emulate. More than once he told me that he would find himself in the middle of battle, even in the middle of exchanging fire, thinking “that poor guy on the other side is just like me.” He wasn’t denying difference, rather he was asserting an essential core truth. I always admired his capacity and grace at such a young age to comprehend the fundamental humanity of his ostensible enemy during the great conflict of WWII. His admission of caritas for the Other, even in the midst of fulfilling duty to his own community, strikes me as especially admirable, and worthy of remembrance.