A New Tribute To Arizona Marines

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - November 16, 2005
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The dirty, cracked asphalt, the weeds, rocks and broken glass that come from years of abandonment and neglect have been transformed into the beautiful site of the new memorial to the 88 United States Marines who were assigned aboard the battleship USS Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941.

Located on the shore side of Pearl Harbor between the Arizona Visitor Center and the Bowfin Memorial, a tall white flagpole, complete with yardarm, thrusts up toward the blue sky. The unique 48-star American flag exemplifies the “Spirit of ‘42,” the consistent theme of the new consolidated Pearl Harbor Visitors Center. From the yardarm fly both the United States Marine Corps flag and the flag of the United States Navy, symbolizing that strong traditional partnership - the Navy Marine Corps Team - unique to these two services.

The five bronze plaques at the base of the flagpole tell the names and the poignant story of the USS Arizona Marines: the 73 who perished and the 15 who survived. The Navy flag is the only one that has flown over Halawa Landing, and the Marine Corps flag is the only one flying over Pearl Harbor today.

Those two flags fluttering side by side took my thoughts back to the Marines I have known. Like most Navy/Marine vets, I will never forget my first D.I. (drill instructor), Staff Sgt. Sweeten. He had a speech impediment that was more than just a lisp. To this D.I., a handkerchief was a “hanchefit,” so you can imagine how his other words came out. He secretly delighted in our fear and confusion as we tried to interpret and follow his close order drill instructions. Sgt. Sweeten gave me my first salute as a Navy officer, “earning” the traditional silver dollar in return.

In the prisons of Hanoi I served with some of the toughest yet compassionate Marines in the Corps, not the least of whom was Col. Orson Swindle. Upon retirement from active duty, he served in the Reagan administration, established himself in Hawaii with his wife Angie, and made two courageous runs for Congress against - who else? - a Democrat incumbent. He recently completed his seven-year term as a commissioner on the Federal Trade Commission, and we remain close friends.

And speaking of close friends, the most inspiring Marine I’ve ever known, Lt. Gen. Hank Stackpole, retired in Hawaii. Hank was terribly wounded in Vietnam and was actually left for dead during the “triage” process. Rescued from the “dead,” he was treated, rehabbed his mutilated leg, then fought the Marine Corps to stay on active duty.

Only by actually racing two fit Navy doctors through the obstacle course at Quantico Marine Base (and finishing before either of them was halfway) was he able to stay and eventually rise to command all U.S. Marines in the Pacific and Indian oceans from right here at Camp Smith.

At the National War College in Washington, D.C., I became close friends with Marine Col. John Ditto, a tough Texan and Civil War buff. John was the most dedicated and professional military officer I’ve ever known. Motivated by the belief that we can always do better, he refined the operational doctrine that guides the Marines’ air support of ground troops. After he was killed in a Harrier jet crash in 1982, the tactical training center at Marine Corps Air Station, Yuma was named in his honor.

As it turns out, John Ditto’s son (and Kalaheo High grad) is now my own stepson, Marine Capt. Kyle Ditto, flying the F/A-18 out of Iwakuni, Japan, after a tour in Iraq. Like his dad, he too is the consummate professional aviator.

Funny thing! That bright red Marine Corps flag snapping in the breeze reminds me that, after two years of college, I tried to enlist in the Marine Aviation Cadet Program, but they flunked me! Something about my eyes.

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