Thursday, September 27, 2007

Pearl Harbor

This post originally appeared under the title "Casting the First Stone" on the first blog I ever kept. That site is now defunct

I made my second trip to Singapore in my undergraduate days, my first having been as an exchange student in high school. This second trip was taken with a group from my university. On the way home from our time spent in Asia, we stopped in Honolulu for a few days (a student’s life is a rough life, huh?).

Sadly, jetlag left me not thinking much of that stopover in Hawaii, the only time I have spent a significant amount of time there (though I’ve had several hours of sleep in the airport on several other occasions). But one thing stuck out during the hazy jetlag-induced state, and it wasn’t the beaches or even the spectacular sunsets, or any of the other things one normally thinks of when talking about a few days’ vacation in Hawaii. Instead, it was a short visit to Pearl Harbor that stays in my mind now so many years later.

But actually, it probably wasn’t the little tour we joined to the site that actually made much difference to me. I don’t remember the sights all that well, honestly. What I do remember, though, is a conversation I had with the elderly gentleman who was leading this pack of students about on this trip, one of my professors.

We were standing on a jetty overlooking the sea, a wrecked ship somewhere down below us. He turned to me and said, “Well, it is easier the second time.”

“What is?” I asked.

“Coming to this place,” he answered. “I was here for the first time a few years ago, and I found out something about myself that I didn’t like. I found out that I know how to hate, and hate indiscriminately and deeply.”

I was surprised by his words. I am not kidding you when I say that he might have been the gentlest, kindest man I had ever met. I couldn’t imagine him feeling real hate toward anything. It seemed a passion a little too hot for the cool temper that he always displayed.

But, as he explained, he was on the plane that flew with a bomb over Nagasaki. He had been trained to hate, and hate enough to kill thousands of innocents. He told me, standing there on that jetty, that after he left the service, it took him many years to deal with the emotional strain of knowing he had killed those people, and ruined so many lives for years after as well. As time wore on and stories about the effects of the bomb emerged, the guilt was nearly overwhelming. But he managed, over time, to work through it.

Or so he thought. Until he set foot on Pearl Harbor, with the nice little tourist center commemorating that horrible day in American history. And he saw Japanese tourists with their cameras happily snapping photos at the site where a nation’s pain had been conceived... by their forefathers.

“I couldn’t believe the rage that welled up inside of me,” he said. “I was so furious that I think I would have tried to kill one of them with my bare hands with just the slightest provocation. I couldn’t believe the urge toward violent behavior that overcame me, an old man, so many years later.”

Then he quietly added, “What right had I to feel that rage toward them? At least they weren’t there, personally. I was. And whatever their forefathers have done on this soil, I have done as much on theirs.”

That is a conversation I will never forget. I am sure that my friend and teacher has long forgotten that he spoke those words to me, but they are words I will carry for a very long time.

Further recommended reading about WWII in Singapore from Amazon:
The Killer They Called a God

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Malcolm R. Campbell said...

My ship sailed in and out of Pearl on numerous occasions as we came and went from the waters off Vietnam to kill people with bombs who lived far away.

I could see, from the flight deck, the Arizona memorial, but could never bring myself to go there. I feared I would hear the cries of the men entombed below. I'm not sure I'd be strong enough to do it even now.

I wasn't a pilot, but felt corrupted by working in support of the plots simply because I was an aircraft carrier crewmember.

How they dealt with their bombing runs, I'll never know for sure, but I suspect each one carries a small subset of the feelings carried by the gentleman you met.

Thank you for sharing that conversation: I've always wondered how the pilots and crew of the planes that bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki handle their emotions when they got home and in the long nights afterwards.


hifidel said...

I cannot imagine it either, Malcolm. It would have been one of those things that would leave a scar for such a long, long time.

I also have a hard time imagining how men who are so gentle, so patient, so humble in "real life" can find themselves in situations where they are dropping bombs that destroy so many lives. What happens to us, that makes capable of doing things that will haunt us for so long?

I was very touched by my teacher's reflections, and have remained grateful that he chose to share them with me.