Red Sky at Night with JB Cornwell | Two visits to the USS Arizona BB-39

I checked in to Air Transport Squadron 21 (VR-21) at NAS Barbers Point, Territory of Hawaii, in August of 1954, fresh from Avionics school in NATTC Millington, TN. I had three, fresh green half chevrons on my sleeve. . .ATAN, E-3.

The Personnel Officer looked over my Service Record, such as it was, and pronounced me eligible to train as an enlisted Navigator, should such an assignment ever be approved. First assignment was as a flight planner, located in the NAS Barbers Point tower.

In the Flight Planning office we worked three shifts; 0800-1600 (daywatch), 1600-2400 (swingshift) and 0000-0800 (midwatch). We would work four daywatches and off two, then return to the swingshift for four days. In the next cycle we would work the midwatch. Over time I became quite skilled using the E-10C Flight Planning hand computer, which was really a sophisticated slide rule and analog drift computer. I also became well acquainted with the other people who worked the various offices and Air Control in the tower. I became quite close with a third class air controller (AC3) named Moad.

Moad was a maverick. He had been in the Navy 15 years and was only a petty officer third. He must have been “busted” but managed to avoid getting discharged. His reputation was that of an excellent performer on the job and a reclusive loner otherwise. One rare thing about him was that the officers treated him with a good measure more respect than they gave most “white hats”. I only learned why later. I have no explanation why Moad gravitated toward me and I toward him in the coffee mess, yet we always ended up at the same table engaged in light conversation.

Moad knew the island very well, as he had been stationed there twice before. We went on Liberty together and he guided me to the best places to spend a day or an evening. We attended a Thanksgiving dinner at the Armed Forces YMCA/USO where I became a regular. A week or so later I asked him what he planned to do with the coming weekend. “I am going to take you to Ford Island and give you a tour.” He replied.

It was pretty rare for Moad to go on Liberty in uniform, and he asked me to do the same. We got off the bus at the main gate at Pearl Harbor and walked to the dock where we boarded a liberty boat headed for Ford Island.

That was where my education began. Not knowledge education. . .feelings education. I had followed the war with the attention to detail that a 7 -10 year old baseball fan follows his favorite team. I knew all the dates and numbers, but I didn’t feel them. Moad had been there on December 7, 1941, 13 years, to the day, before. He was about to take me through the attack as though I, too, had been there.

First we went to the tower, where a young Moad had been on duty when the first bombs hit and the strafing began, then to the hangars to which he had fled. Finally we came to the shore where he had helped drag oil covered, burned sailors and corpses from the harbor. He pointed to places as he described what had happened there.

There was a walkway out to a platform that rested over the Arizona. A marine, in dress blues, stood a vigil there and the Stars and Stripes fluttered above. We walked out to the platform. The base of a gun turret loomed out of the water over the visible hull of the great ship. Moad leaned on the rail, watching drops of oil breaking the surface and exploding into rainbows of color. He stopped talking. He wept. I felt honored that this man had allowed me access to his deepest feelings, feelings that he held private from most.

I got an idea of why Moad was so respected at an Admirals Inspection, where we were uniformed in full dress. The array of hardware decorating his chest was impressive and included a Purple Heart and what I took to be awards for valor. He never talked about them and never talked again to me about December 7.

Fifty two years later I stood on the magnificent memorial that has replaced the rickety platform. It wasn’t December 7. It was late October and I had come back to Hawaii with the love of my life to revisit treasured memories where we had courted and married in 1955.

The turret base was still there and the drops of oil still pop to the surface and spread their little rainbows. I was transported back to 1954 and my tour, guided by an eloquent veteran of the very events memorialized there. I glanced to the South, where USS Missouri rests in magnificent glory, representing the end of the great conflict that began where I stood. The photos were taken on the 2006 visit.

December 7 of this year, 2011, marks the seventieth anniversary of the attack at Pearl Harbor. It will always mean something very special to me, thanks to a grizzled veteran who chose to share his soul with me.

(JB Cornwell writes from “The Hideout” in Whitt, TX, and is also an expert moderator, instructor, and fountain-of-knowledge in the Boating Forums, where he may occasionally share a yarn of his own.)

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