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Friday, May 6, 2016

Gray Matter: Recalling horrors of Pearl Harbor

Monday, December 12, 2005

There is a dwindling number of us who remember exactly where we were and what we were doing when word came of the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was the initial one of those never-to-be- forgotten events in our lives.  Since then, John Kennedy's assassination, Oklahoma City, 9/11,  have all come and gone.  But  December 7, 1941 was the very first of those days which we wish we didn't have to remember, but which we can never forget.

An eerie resemblance to all that our nation is going through right now haunts me as the day approaches.  Perhaps I can best express it through the story, reluctantly shared some years ago, by  one of Cherokee County's real unsung heroes.

Leonart Nelson, now deceased, was serving as a young seaman on the USS Maryland, berthed at Pearl Harbor, right beside the USS Oklahoma on that fateful December day.  He said, "I'd gotten up around 6:30 or 7:00, ate breakfast, and headed up on deck to a spot where I could nap a bit.  My duty didn't start until later.  About eight o'clock we heard an explosion and felt an impact.  The alarm sounded and we all went to our battle stations."   His was in a forward fire room and he clearly recalled that the old ship's eight boilers had full steam up in just ten minutes.               

Leonart had signed up in the summer of 1940 for a six-year hitch.  After six weeks of basic training at Great Lakes, 1,300 of those young sailors rode by train to Bremerton, Washington for their assignments.  His was to the deck force of the Maryland, a huge old turbo-electric warship of 1918 vintage.  However it was still more modern than the steam-powered Oklahoma (circa 1914-15), one of the four battleships lost in the attack.  The Maryland, along with the entire Pacific Fleet, had maneuvered in and out of "Pearl" that whole summer.  "This made it a prime target for a surprise attack," he observed, in retrospect. 

That ominous day remained etched in Nelson's memory. He vividly recalled his ship's commander wielding an axe to sever the huge cables securing the Oklahoma to the side of his own ship, fore and aft.  When the Oklahoma, with three gaping holes in its side, began to list, it was obvious the Maryland would have suffered the same fate without the officer's quick action.  Can you imagine watching 429 of your peers slipping to their watery graves?  Leonart's facial expression those many years later gave me a glimpse of what it must have meant.

Although I had no way of recognizing it at the time, his observations  took a sudden turn which now seems curiously current.  When I reminded him of recurring allegations that our own government might have been aware of the possibility of an attack,  he grimly observed that it always takes a scapegoat to bring people together in a country as huge and diverse as ours. These were his very words, "Yes, as I look back, I'm sure someone knew something was up.  Every one of our ships with any kind of speed, anything that could travel over thirty knots, steamed out of the harbor on Saturday.  Carriers, cruisers, destroyers, all were out of the way!"

Conspiracy?  Manipulation of  intelligence?  No one at that time engaged in the "blame game".  One thing is certain, human nature hasn't changed, and neither has warfare,  probably human nature's most evil manifestation.  WW II brought an end to Fascism.  We have lived to see the demise of Communism.  If, as many claim, we are now in a war to destroy Terrorism, are the means so remarkably different from those used so long ago? 

This all gives us a great deal to think about.  Still, through it all, we must never forget that in every war there are heroes.  May we remember and honor each and every one of them !                      

(Editor's note: Wednesday, December 7, is Pearl Harbor Day. May we all join Margaret in remembering and praying for all of our military everywhere.)