by Barry Howard
Today as wreaths are laid at the USS Arizona and as divers are preparing to inter the cremains of two recently deceased survivors of the horrific attack on Pearl Harbor inside the hull of this historic sunken vessel, I am reminiscing about my visits to the USS Arizona Memorial and the National Cemetery of the Pacific.
As a kid growing up in Northeast Alabama, I never dreamed I would have the opportunity to travel broadly. For our family, making the journey from Anniston to Eastwood Mall in Birmingham was like a mini-vacation.
Going to an exotic location, like Hawaii, seemed out of the question. However, in 1995 I made my first trip to Hawaii, and of course, Pearl Harbor was high on my list of sites to visit.
I was raised near Pelham Range and Fort McClellan in Calhoun County. Seeing military convoys traveling the highways and hearing artillery fire from the range was a routine part of life. Later, when I served as a pastor near the army base, and subsequently, as I taught on the adjunct faculty at the college on the base, I developed significant friendships with many of our great military personnel. As long as I can remember, I have had a deep sense of gratitude for veterans and a profound sense of gratitude for all of those who serve in our armed forces.
I think anyone who visits Pearl Harbor is overwhelmed with emotion. Missouri Congressman Sam Graves says, “Millions of people gave their lives fighting fascism and imperialism, but Pearl Harbor was the event that forever changed the course of human history.”
While on the USS Arizona, as I listened to the historical narration, and as I watched tourists and veterans alike walk around the monument reading the list of names with reverent silence and then gaze in the water at the rusted vessel, I grieved for the families who never saw their young men and women return home.
Mostly due to a missions partnership we had developed through our church, I made subsequent visits to Hawaii in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000. My most memorable visit occurred in 1999. That year I had the privilege of taking my friend, Mack Jones of Corbin, Kentucky, on his first trip to Hawaii. Mack’s brother, Edward, died January 5, 1944 in the aftermath of the attacks on Pearl Harbor and is buried at the National Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as “Punchbowl.”
On a prior trip, a group of us, including Mack’s wife, Wylene, had visited Punchbowl, located the headstone for Edward W. Jones, taken a few photos, and then did a pencil tracing of the grave marker to take home to Mack.
The next year, we were privileged to return, and this time Mack went with us. First we traveled up the hill to Punchbowl and visited Edward’s grave. Then we traveled to Pearl Harbor to visit the memorial. As a group of us stood alongside our friend, whose brother never returned home to Kentucky, we were even more aware of the sobering reality of war, and even more appreciative of the sacrifices of those paid the price of our freedom with their own blood.
Since I have moved to Pensacola, I have conducted over 130 services at the Barrancas National Cemetery located at the Naval Air Station here. As a minister, I am honored to share words in memoriam for veterans of all ages.
And today, as I think about that memorable visit to Pearl Harbor and Punchbowl, and my many other visits to Barrancas, Eisenhower, and Arlington National Cemeteries, I am also praying that the Christmas “peace on earth and goodwill to all humankind” will become our global reality.
(Barry Howard serves as the Senior Minister at the First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Florida.)