75 Years Later, What I Still Don’t Know

by Kay Henry

December 7, 2016.

At 8:00 in the morning, I’m enjoying an ordinary breakfast outside on the front porch: a bowl of muesli, hot coffee. I slip the dog a biscuit and watch the mist roll through the olive grove, preparing the way for the day’s sunshine. Except for a distant neighbor’s tractor, all is quiet.

Seventy-five years ago at this time of day, bombs began to fall on my father. Torpedoes began to hit his ship. Bull-horned orders blared. Sailors, just off-shift, began to swarm over decks to their battle stations. The U.S.S. Oklahoma, struck in the first minutes of the attack on Pearl Harbor, began to list. Young men began to die. My father was twenty-two.

When I was twenty-two, I flew off to Strasbourg, France, on a graduate fellowship in literature. My father, same age, faced his first combat, and for the next three years, without a single home leave, he saw action in all the major battles of World War II’s Pacific theatre.

Now, on this calm morning in rural Spain, where my husband and I have, we think, come to live out our days, I see anew how young my father was when the war began. I wonder if the Pearl Harbor attack was his first experience of death. I wonder how he went on, battle after battle, and what he felt when the bombs finally fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I wonder if he thought, these bombs are more terrible than those that struck us in 1941. Or if he thought, all bombs are terrible. If he grieved that day in August when the war ended but the suffering, unspeakable, continued. See action. Pacific theatre. The euphemisms of war. My father and the other millions of sailors, airmen, and soldiers who fought in World War II did more than “see action”; they witnessed carnage, they trembled with fear, they followed adrenaline rushes into bravery. They killed other human beings, for God’s sake, having learned that killing others was often the only way to avoid being killed oneself, and, in my father’s case, the only way of protecting his ship and the men it carried.

See action? Lights, camera, action! Curtain up – we’re in the theatre! Spell it the British way, with an “-re,” not an “-er,” and it becomes even less real. Orthography ascribing distance, matching the newsreel images of smiling, busy faces as men file past the camera on their way to the unknown. “It’s not a theatre, it’s a goddamn war,” I imagine my young father saying. “People we can’t find want to torpedo our ship, and I haven’t seen my family in a year, two years, now three years. All I can do is my job, up there in Fire Control. I try to do my job, and not wonder too much about whether I’ll make it. Lots of people don’t. Lots of people I was on the Oklahoma with, they got killed. I didn't. Maybe I keep doing my job for their sake, or maybe because it’s the only way I can think of I’ll ever get home.”

Service, there’s another euphemism. My father served in the Navy, served in the war. At the end of his life, a hospice nurse, well-intentioned, asked if he’d served in the military. He affirmed that he had been in the Navy. “Thank you for your service,” she said. I could see him thinking, “That was a long time ago.” Not quite rolling his eyes. Seeing, as I did, that her thank-you was rote and sincere at the same time. Weeks later, as cancer continued to weaken my father’s body – the body that had carried him through the war, through losing a son, through nursing his wife in her final illness – weeks later, the same woman asked him, “Did you enjoy your time in the service?” “Enjoy?” he repeated, incredulous. “Hell, no, I can’t say I enjoyed it.” His eyes focused on a distant memory: a dead friend, a battle, the taste of pea soup amid the gunfire at Guadalcanal, his hammock’s sharp scent. “Really?” asked the nurse. She was surprised, confused, expecting a different answer.

And yet, I’ve seen photos of him and a friend at Waikiki Beach, laughing, holding bottles of beer, marveling at the unaccustomed November sunshine.
More euphemisms: Engage the enemy. Lose a friend. Win.

I finish my breakfast and feed the cats. Two black and white toms have adopted us. They look so much like my father’s cats that we named one of them Francis, his middle name, which he claimed to hate. In the Navy, everyone called him Bill, though his birth-certificate name was Walter. His father and grandfather were both William. I don’t know where the Francis came from, and there are not many people left to ask. Our biological family now consists of my sister, me, my niece and her two children, and half a dozen cousins around my age. Together, if we talked more often, we might be able to assemble answers to a few more questions about the past.

In the time it takes me, seventy-five years after the bombing, to get ready to drive to town, chaos had enveloped Honolulu. The Oklahoma had turned on its side. My father had crawled up the nearly vertical deck and jumped off its side into a flaming ocean. A rescue boat pulled him aboard just as he hit the water – a double blessing, since he couldn’t swim. I picture the scene after the attack as I drive through olive groves, themselves home to a war whose nominal victor died in my lifetime. Pine forests top the Catalunyan hills, planted, I’ve learned, on Franco’s orders to hide Republican graves.

I’m going to our village this morning to meet John for coffee. John is a seventy-eight-year-old retired classics professor from England. He leads our poetry circle: seven British women, and me, who meet monthly to discuss poems we’ve selected according to a theme of John’s choosing. Today, we’re just having coffee. John’s vision is weak and he has trouble walking. Widowed, he has moved out of his large home with its view of the Mediterranean, exchanging it for the drab block of an assisted living facility. The women of the poetry circle take him out sometimes, for lunch or a drink or just some fresh air. I meet with him twice a month to read to him. He’s especially fond of Homer.

Today, John is wearing a canvas vest with multiple pockets, a checkered shirt, a pair of jeans, and a cardigan. Before we leave his room, he asks what time it is. I look at my phone’s clock and smile: 11:11, I tell him. That was our family’s favorite time. When we went to bed at night, we’d take one last look at the clock and more likely than not it would say 11:11. Uncannily often, 11:11 was the answer to the question “What time is it?’ 11:11 makes me think of my father and I feel warm, as if he’s just paid me a visit.

At our last poetry session, our theme was “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die.” Mortality, I suppose, has been on John’s mind lately. The theme produced a wide range of poems, from Victorian poorhouse ballads to Horace. John quoted from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam:

“Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the dust descend.”

I own my father’s copy of the Rubaiyat. It’s small in format, no more than six inches long and four wide, its black leather cover stamped in gold. Inside, on a frontispiece printed with a watery blue inkwash, my father had written in his careful, angular script:

W. F. Henry
Honolulu, H. 1941

I alight on a new puzzle. Did he read Khayyam’s one hundred and one quatrains before or after the attack? If before, at twenty-two, how was he affected by the poem’s insistent message? If afterwards, how did witnessing Pearl Harbor’s destruction change how he might have read those verses? And if my father bought and read this little volume before December 7, why is the book in such pristine condition? I own a scrapbook full of artifacts from that time. Some items were brought up from the Oklahoma after she sank: waterlogged newsletters, menus, and certificates that had been rescued from his footlocker. Letters, too, that must have arrived after the bombing, given how well preserved they are. But this book mystifies me. It might have been a gift from his Aunt Gertrude, an early Christmas present. Or maybe it was sent to him for his birthday the previous August. He could have received it, inscribed it, read it, and sent it home for safekeeping. I don’t know how many personal objects sailors were allowed to keep on a battleship, even in peacetime. I do know that he treasured the book until the end of his life, reading it often, always knowing its exact place on the bookshelf.

Regardless of when he first received the Rubaiyat, I am certain the centuries-old poem from a long-dead poet helped my father mend his shattered self. Whether delivered from Aunt Gertrude or spotted in a Honolulu bookstore, it arrived just when he needed it. Would he have bought it for himself? I wonder now when local Honolulu stores opened for business again after the bombing. Open shops imply normal life, which in December 1941 had all but vanished from the island of Oahu – indeed, from much of the world. Still, I can imagine my father dressed in a fresh uniform, stopping before a window, browsing along a dusty shelf, reaching for the tiny volume. I see him opening it to a quatrain urging him to seize the day in case the next day brought his death. Or to Khayyam’s most famous citation:

“A book of verses underneath the bough
a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou
Beside me in the wilderness.”

These words must have set him dreaming of picnics with my mother, Jean, memories that could have comforted him, or conversely, increased his anguish. I have photos of them both at maybe eighteen, already sweethearts, each reaching up to caress the horse whose gentle face dominates the portraits. In the background, a Kansas pasture’s grassy hills. The war had begun in Europe by then. My father had not yet enlisted.

At the start of the war in the Pacific, my mother was just out of college and living in Denver. Marriage would have to wait until 1944, when her sailor was allowed his first home leave since Honolulu. My mother had her own stories of the Pearl Harbor bombing and its long aftermath, many of which I am able to tell. Some, like how it felt to have my father wake screaming beside her in the night, decades after armistice, I cannot.

John and I finish our coffee. Today, December 7, he has talked of opera, his first marriage, his desire to see temples along the Nile. I try to listen to John and encourage him to share his memories and hopes. But I cannot not think of my father. He is twenty-two. Four-hundred twenty-nine of his shipmates are dead. He is safe for now. He walks the streets, in shock. He has no one to give him orders. His ship is at the bottom of the harbor. He needs food, clothes, comfort. An idea of what comes next.

*

A friend emailed me an article about the U.S. Navy’s recent decision to repatriate the remains of sailors killed at Pearl Harbor. It was about a man whose remains were identified through DNA testing and sent back to his home town of Whitewater, Kansas, for burial. The article said that the young man, Lewis Wagoner, died after climbing the deck, stepping over the railing, and leaping into the flaming, oil-covered water far below. He couldn’t swim, witnesses said, and he quickly drowned. I imagine my father at the railing with the doomed sailor. It could have happened, after all; they were both from Kansas, serving aboard the same ship. Acquaintances, possibly friends. Maybe, desperate, they would have encouraged each other to jump. Encourage in the sense of: impart courage. I imagine them reaching for each other’s hands, then going over, through the air and into the flames. Like pairs of people who barely knew each other on 9-11, who held hands and leapt into an ash-filled void when the twin towers went down. As my father was being pulled into the boat that saved his life, he might have seen the other young Kansan sink beneath the surface. Men were dying all around him. Did Lewis Wagoner stand out? Did my father think, seeing him die, if he did see him die: “How is it that I’m still alive?”

Now, Wagoner’s bones are buried in the dry flint hills of southeastern Kansas. My father’s ashes are scattered on our Missouri farm. Wagoner died 73 years before my father did, and was buried two years after. Math that makes no sense.


*

Days – peaceful ones, at least -- tend to follow an ordinary pattern. Waking, coffee, tasks. I go to the shops in the village, note the color of the ocean, have lunch with a friend. I drive a car to my home; I open the door with a key. Evening rituals: a drink, a walk, a kiss. My husband has made a tagine of green peas. We eat it together, with fresh homemade bread heated on the wood stove. Our bed, upstairs, is covered with warm blankets.

I consider my obsessive need to know what my father was doing, thinking, feeling, seeing at every stage of December 7, 1941. Of course this is impossible. I can never know any such details besides what I’ve heard all my life and what research might yield about the events of the day. I’ve seen on-line, for example, the U.S.S. Oklahoma captain’s report of the battle. It totals the grim numbers of dead and unaccounted for, and it praises the men who defended their ship. It tells a story, but not all of it. The rest, I will need to imagine.

And yet I sense in myself a twin compulsion to report my own December 7, to match ordinary events in the here and now with extraordinary ones from back then. Not to feel guilty or superior, nor to deepen my own sense of loss, but to see both days with more clarity. To know my young father. To bring him home.


Kay Henry is a writer with roots in the American Midwest, who now lives with her husband in northern Spain. She holds her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When her parents died, Kay inherited a number of artifacts from World War II including memorabilia from the USS Oklahoma, the battleship on which her father was serving when the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor in 1941. This essay is one attempt to understand her parents' lives during those years, and to explore how memories of war are passed to succeeding generations.

Issue number: 
2.1