With our moving experience at the USS Arizona Memorial completed, Odile and I have just enough time for a blitz visit to the USS Missouri before scooping up her little cherubs from preschool. As we drive onto Ford Island, the tranquil solemnity I felt on the Arizona quickly gives way to mild panic about having barely enough time to enjoy this next site. I can’t help but silently regret, “We should have gotten here sooner.”
Panic’s companion is eager anticipation. The battleship Missouri is the last of its kind built by the US Navy. While it saw a lot of action, it’s best known as the site of Japan’s unconditional surrender, bringing a welcomed end to World War II. The history contained in this vessel is as behemoth as the ship itself. And I want to learn as much as I can in the little time we’ve got.
The car windows are rolled down to let in the warm, Hawaiian breeze, and with it come the sounds of a marching band. We can’t believe our luck! We park the car and race towards the ship (even with a strained ankle, Odile manages to pull off an Olympic speed-walk). Proud and patriotic flags line the pathway to the ship and funnel us towards a visiting high school band and tall flag team performing a medley of proud and patriotic tunes. Wool uniforms and sweat-drenched faces matter little to this lucky bunch. They’re elated to be here for the festivities of the 72nd anniversary weekend of the Pearl Harbor attack, and how fortunate we are to see them perform!
Uniformed military personnel of every branch are milling all around us, too–not to patrol, not to protect, but to be tourists, just like us. The excitement in their eyes about being at such an historic site is contagious. The spirit of the moment carries us away and we ham it up by taking some cheesy photos. How often do you get to wear a combat helmet with a battleship at your back?
As we finally board the Missouri, a jovial woman greets us with a broad smile and says, “You look like you’re on a mission!” I glance at her nametag and unable to contain my enthusiasm, I quickly blurt out, “Linda, we’re just so happy to be here! We just visited the Arizona, we got to listen to a marching band, and we’re ready to take a guided tour!”
“Well, goooood! Y’all gonna to meet me right here in ten minutes. But I gotta tell you a secret: there’s gonna be a flyover in three minutes. So, you climb those steps right there and get on up to the Surrender Deck so you get a perfect view with the marines standing on the bow of the ship.”
What timing! This just keeps getting better and better! We scramble to the canopied Surrender Deck and decide we need to climb down one deck to get a less obstructed view. With a set of eight 16-inch guns to my back, marines to my left, the Surrender Deck on my right, and Pearl Harbor in front of me, I get shivers in the tropical midday heat as four helicopters parade before us against a backdrop of celestial blue.
Video: Helicopter Flyover at the USS Missouri
We meet up again with Linda–a self-proclaimed “suhthun gurl” who likes to talk and loves when people talk to her. If we have questions, we shouldn’t be shy. But for the next forty-five minutes, she leads us on such an animated and informative tour that most of our would-be questions are answered before we have time to raise our hands. We explore the impressive structure, machinery, and artillery of the ship. We listen attentively as she paints verbal pictures of valor, honor, and respect that exemplify the soldiers, leaders–and even the then-enemies who boarded this ship. Linda uses her artistry as a storyteller to take us back in time to tumultuous and sacred moments on the Missouri. Two stories stood out to me.
The Burial at Sea
Ten days into the battle of Okinawa, a Kamikaze fighter attacked the “The Mighty Mo”. Kamikaze (divine wind) pilots had the sole purpose of destroying warships by crashing their planes into the sea vessels, committing suicide in the process. Anti-aircraft fire took down the plane. It struck the side of the Missouri and landed of the deck, spewing fire and debris everywhere. The body of 19-year-old Setsuo Ishino was found amongst the rubble.
Rage, fear, and vengeance must have swelled in every crewmember. But the levelheaded Captain William M. Callaghan took leadership and asked his troops to embrace dignity rather than disgrace, respect rather than revenge, and compassion rather than cruelty. To him, this young Japanese pilot was doing exactly what he was supposed to do–just as his own men were each doing their duty–and died for his country because of it.
Sewing together scavenged fabric, the crew made a makeshift Japanese flag to drape the canvas shroud covering the body of the enemy pilot. A three-volley rifle salute was given, and all those present stood at attention as the melancholic brassy notes of “Taps” played for the fallen fighter.. And so even in the midst of brutal war, these men bound together to honor an enemy soldier, committed Ishino’s body to the sea, and in doing so celebrated their common humanity.
It must have been humiliating for the representatives of the Japanese Empire to be there, surrendering to the Allied Forces in the Bay of Tokyo with their backs to their countrymen. And it was designed to be. No one spoke a word to them. They were left to their own thoughts, their own fears, and their own imaginations about what would happen. They had braced themselves for the worst, and while they had their duties as officials of Japan to fulfill, in their minds, death would have been more honorable than surrender.
The timing and events of the ceremony had been practiced with military precision–crafted to last no more than thirty minutes. The enemy would not be granted any more time than that on this US battleship. When General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, addressed them, the Japanese were likely braced for his anger, his insults, his haughtiness, and his intimidation. He chose instead to speak of opportunities for freedom, growth, mutual respect, and peace.
We have known the bitterness of defeat and the exultation of triumph, and from both we have learned there can be no turning back. We must go forward to preserve in peace what we won in war… Let us pray that peace be now restored to the world and that God will preserve it always.
–General MacArthur; September 2, 1945; USS Missouri, Tokyo Bay
Listening to Linda weave tales of history, heroism, tragedy, triumph, and hope, I couldn’t help but cry. This may be a war from decades ago, and I may not have known anyone involved in battle, but I am human, I am an American, and I feel pain, pride, and joy as deeply as anyone. Our history, whether we know it intimately or not, shapes us. So it behooves us to understand our past so we can understand ourselves. And it takes a gifted tour guide like Linda to make the past feel present, to help us learn lessons from the mistakes and victories of our ancestors, and to move toward a hopeful future.
As a traveler, it’s important to embrace serendipitous moments when history, culture, learning, and understanding all converge at the same place and time. I’m so thankful to have been at the right place at the right time to have this amazing experience.