By: Willie Moseley
Encountering an unforgettable documentary on Veterans Day weekend
I was more or less preparing to write a commentary for this week’s issue of the Tribune about computers—the human type—that were involved in this country’s early space program. Such an essay would have made a nice “domino” from last week’s profile of NASA flight controller Gene Kranz.
But weekend before last included Veterans Day, and I happened to catch a documentary on PBS that abruptly changed my writing plans.
Veterans have been in the news a bit more in recent times, as some World War II events have now reached a 75-year mark. There’s also the ongoing-but-seemingly-evanescing controversy about NFL players kneeling during the National Anthem (most likely, more about that subject will appear in another future column).
But it was impromptu channel surfing that led me to the PBS program, titled “Journey Home to the U.S.S. Arizona.”
Rhode Island resident Raymond Haerry was among 335 survivors of the sinking of the Arizona. He had been blown overboard when the mighty battleship was destroyed after a Japanese bomb penetrated the forward ammunition hold during the Pearl Harbor raid, and ancient movies of that explosion validate the incomprehensible force. Over 1100 Arizona crew members perished during the battle.
Most of the dead are still entombed inside the hull of the Arizona, which is submerged in Pearl Harbor. However, in recent times, 42 more former crew members have been interred inside a specific portion of the hull, and the journey of Raymond Haerry’s cremated remains to a final underwater resting place on the battleship was the subject of the documentary.
Like a lot of World War II veterans, Haerry didn’t talk too much about his experiences, but the basic narrative of what happened to him on Dec. 7, 1941 was known.
He was a 19 year-old coxswain assigned to the Arizona when Japanese air forces attacked Pearl Harbor, and was knocked into the harbor by the cataclysmic explosion. He found himself swimming in waters set afire by oil and fuel, and navigated his way through the conflagration by pushing the flames aside with his arms. When he reached the shore, he found a gun and fired at Japanese planes.
Ultimately, Haerry would have a 25-year career in the Navy, retiring as a Master Chief Petty Officer. He was 94 when he died in 2016, and in spite of his reticence to impart his recollections, had expressed the wish to be interred onboard the Arizona.
The documentary does a commendable job of contrasting the preparations for the journey by Haerry’s family with the preparations for the ceremony by Navy personnel and members of the National Park Service taking place at the Arizona memorial, the white structure that sits astride the Arizona’s hull.
Haerry’s cremated remains were transported to Hawai’i by his granddaughter and her family, and the journey got off to a meaningful start, as a ceremony with an honor guard was held at the New Jersey airport from which the family departed.
And of course, the interment ceremony on the memorial was unforgettable. It had all of the standard facets of a military funeral, including a rifle salute, Taps, and a triangular-folded flag presented to Haerry’s granddaughter.
But the imagery of the actual interment was probably branded into many viewers’ minds permanently.
Raymond Haerry’s remains, sealed in a container that was the shape and size of a dictionary (not a classic “urn”) were presented to a diving team floating in the water at the edge of the memorial. The unusual sight of persons in underwater gear participating in a committal service was fascinating, and the lead diver held the container aloft with both hands in a reverent posture, as he slowly backpedaled away from the memorial. When he reached the location of the gun turret where the container was to be interred, he submerged straight down, without changing his body position. The container, still held above his head, disappeared beneath the water.
As of this writing, Raymond Haerry is the 42nd and most recent former Arizona crew member to be interred on the battleship. There are reportedly five crew members that are still alive.
I’ve told the Missus that if we were ever considering visiting Hawai’i, the main reason (for me) would be to visit the Arizona memorial. All of the luaus or riding in outriggers on Waikiki Beach or other tourist traditions would be secondary.
“Journey Home to the U.S.S. Arizona” simply reinforced that notion.
Willie Moseley is the news editor emeritus of The Tribune and a regular columnist for the paper.