Pearl Harbor, 1941

The cover of Time Magazine with its horrific black-and-white image of a sinking ship and billowing smoke, anchored me to the spot.  I snatched it from the rack, the last issue available:  PEARL HARBOR – 75 YEARS LATER.

I have long troubled over Dad’s WWII experience at sea, and how it affected his parenting and my life.  I confess that mostly I avoided it, though.  I didn’t want to explore the reasons why he did what he did. I didn’t want to let go of my anger.

But when I began writing stories about my past, the ones involving Dad came out like fire. I asked my sister KK about what she knew, and she handed me a fat yellow file of documents from Dad’s naval experience – things she had mailed away for over the years, communications with sailors under Dad’s command, photographs, medical records, and detailed accountings of events in battle. Telling myself I was too busy, I thanked her for the file and stuck it in a drawer.  I wasn’t ready to open it up.

It fascinated me that Dad never once spoke of his war experience.  But once, we caught a glimpse of what he went through.  It was at our Thanksgiving table when he relived a kamakazi attack. We all sat watching the terror mask his face as he writhed and shouted orders, and then finally curled into a ball, rocking and sobbing.

That event changed everything – my certainty about who Dad was – and who I was.  It altered my view of right and wrong, and the damage caused by trauma.  It was so unspeakably horrific, so wrong in every way imaginable, my family never spoke of it again.

It was in the writing of that scene four decades after it happened, that broke my heart open.  When you write about something – when you’re smack in the stink of it, every pore in your body believes you are experiencing it.  Your brain can’t tell the difference. I found that yellow file KK had given me so long ago and began the research I needed to do.

I learned that Dad was at Pearl Harbor the morning of the attack.  His first assignment, aboard the U.S.S. Helm. He was 21 years old and an officer in the United States Navy.

I thought back to my youth, when Mom would point to a photo of Dad standing outside officer’s quarters aboard ship, and say, “Wasn’t he dashing?” The photo was taken when Dad had been promoted to Lt. Commander, after Pearl Harbor.  I realized then that our pride as a family came from this honor.  It made up for much of what happened at the hands of our father – or at least we pretended it did.

So when I saw that picture of the devastation at Pearl Harbor on the cover of Time, I rushed home and spread it open to find a map of the exact ship placement on that morning – the first I’d ever seen, my eyes darted for the Helm. Where was it?

Ah!  Way down at the bottom in the left corner – nearly off the page. I felt relief at the distance Dad’s ship had put between him and the attackers. I grabbed KK’s old file and read every last word of the commanding officer’s report of that morning, minute by minute.  I imagined all the chaos, as the ship’s report came to life; the young men – most still in their teens scrambling, to survive. It began like this:

0755 Helm underway to deperm buoys in West Loch (demagnetizing buoys to camouflage them)

0759 First enemy plane sighted in shallow dive over Ford Island.  Observed first bomb hit hangar.  Went below to get ammunition to guns.

0800  Torpedo planes pass over the Helm and drop torpedoes across the island.  More planes came in low and strafed ship.  All bullets missed ship by a few feet.  No return fire since machine guns were coated with grease and had to be cleaned before they could fire.

The report went on for three pages, and when I came to the end, my breath caught as I read the last sentence. I wonder if the commanding officer knew how very wrong he was:  “There were no losses or injuries to personnel.”

I guess it’s all in how you define injuries. Right?

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