November 15, 2006 Edition

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The Greatest Generation's War

By Sarah S. Teague
Guest Writer

A recent trip landed Jeff and me in Honolulu for several hours. We rented a car and headed toward Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor is still a military base, and you don't want to try to enter it. After a couple of illegal turns right in front of the military personnel manning the entry station, who seemed to take our mistakes in stride, we found the road to the Arizona Memorial.

The ticket we purchased at 11:30 a.m. indicated a 1 p.m. film showing, thanks to the crowd. I wasn't sure if it was because we visited three days before Veteran's Day, or if the crush was the norm. A large percentage of the tourists appeared to be of Japanese descent.

A docent informed us that after the film, we would board a shuttle to cross the water to the Arizona. To pass time, we moseyed through the museum, learned that no food was available, watched people. Lines formed for the theater and we weren't sure why, since the tickets guaranteed everyone a seat. At 12:55, we joined the line. A veteran behind us began to tell stories of his years in the service, 1965 on. While he talked, his wife tried to break in line ahead of us.

As we moved toward the theater door, I read several memorial plaques. One which brought tears to my eyes featured a Star of David with a verse from Isaiah: "The Dead Shall Live Again." One read "In Memory of Our Buddies." Our buddies, a term used to describe close friends. Another plaque was donated by the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. I thought how they were victims, too.

The film explained causes leading up to Japan's attack on the U.S. and showed actual footage of explosions, burning, mayhem. While the audacity and violence of the act stunned me, I felt a certain detachment at the same time, not the way I felt when I toured Ground Zero in December of 2001. In NYC, to my family's embarrassment, I practically blubbered. Not here.

Perhaps it was the grainy film, or the outdated cars and hairstyles, or even the fact that I was really hungry, but I didn't connect with the victims and survivors, as I did in Manhattan. It's like reading about Custer's annihilation at Little Big Horn, or the Civil War slaughter at Antietam. While time erodes the painful memories, it also erodes the reality. It was hard to think of them all as people like me. So I focused on sailor Carter.

While we had passed time earlier viewing the small open-air museum, I lingered in front of one display highlighting a certain sailor Carter, the pay clerk. His photo albums, a yearbook opened to his senior picture, uniform, and other paraphernalia all conspired to bring dimension to his life.

I wondered if his family donated those items after the attack. It seemed sad to think of giving away even a few of a lost son's possessions. Perhaps they were given after his parents died. I don't recall his first name or his rank. This man's effects, however, brought the war closer to me.

Here was a 23-year old man, 10 or so years younger than my grandfather; 15 years older than my father in 1941. Did he like chocolate ice cream? Had he ever broken a bone? What did he call his girlfriend? Who were his buddies?

After the film, we boarded the ferry and approached the memorial. It sits astride the battleship Arizona, a few of whose higher points stick out of the water. The turret for gun number 3. Mooring studs. The flagpole, rising triumphant above the wreckage, attached to the original mast. As water rolled over the long, straight remnant of gun number 1, it resembled the backbone of a dinosaur, a fossil, barnacle-encrusted, permanent because it survived. The rest was murky, invisible. All those hidden rooms with bones, belts, cuff links, razors, the scene of such activity and vitality on Saturday, Dec. 6, 1941.

When did the smoke clear? When was it actually quiet? When did it sink in to parents, schoolmates, neighbors, that these boys really weren't coming home?

In a room at the far end, the name of each soldier who died was listed. I peeked in and located Carter's name. It was the best I could do.

(Editor's Note: Sarah Shell Teague grew up in Walnut Ridge and graduated from WRHS. She has a doctorate in English from the University of Mississippi. Sarah lives in El Dorado with her husband, Jeff, also formerly of Walnut Ridge, and their three sons. She is the daughter of Rev. Frank Shell of Batesville and the late Carolyn Shell.)

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