Tales Of A Pearl Harbor Hero

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - December 21, 2005
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As we left the shore-side dock of the USS Arizona Visitor Center, the bow of the launch swung directly toward the memorial. In our wake, the calm waters of the harbor sparkled to match the warm, cloudless morning. The old veteran sitting next me showed none of the unease he’d related earlier about his first attempt to go aboard the sunken battleship. Instead, he studied the skill of the coxswain conning our boat, probably engrossed in a silent critique.

Raymond Chavez, age 93, had been at the helm of the tuna boat turned minesweeper, USS Condor, around 5 o’clock on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. He had told me of sighting the miniature Japanese submarine in the gray of dawn just outside the mouth of the harbor, of notifying the Pearl Harbor Command Post, and the USS Ward, a nearby destroyer. The Ward swooped into the area, and immediately sighted and sank the submarine, marking the first U.S. victory of World War II, an hour before the Japanese aerial attack actually began.

I had met Ray and his daughter Kathleen - herself a Navy retiree - two days before at the annual Navy League Sea Services recognition luncheon at the Hale Koa. Kathleen had brought her dad to Hawaii from San Diego for the 64th anniversary of that “Day of Infamy.”

“He just wanted to be here,” she said. Then she read about the luncheon in the newspaper. A very humble man, Ray had expected no particular attention, recognition or special treatment, but I did ensure he was introduced along with four crewmen of the USS Ward. When it became apparent they had made no arrangements to visit Pearl Harbor, my offer to take them there was reflexive.

The Rangers at the USS Arizona Visitors Center are always gracious, but for a Pearl Harbor survivor, the sky’s the limit! Before viewing the film in the center’s theater, our Ranger guide introduced Ray to the rest of our group, made up mostly of junior high youngsters from Mid-Pac Institute. From their perspective,

Raymond Chavez could have been Santa Claus. They were in respectful awe!

Experiencing no “strange feelings” this time, Ray spryly explored the entire span of the memorial, pausing at length in the Hall of Honor where the 1,177 names of his contemporaries still entombed in the sunken battleship are inscribed on the sacred wall. As usual, during this particular week, ceremonial floral wreaths were standing guard everywhere.

Back out in the sunlight, Ray and Kathleen watched some of the youngsters reverently toss flower lei into the water over the shadowy outline of the ship. But one young girl had another idea. She asked her teacher to ask me if it would be OK to give her lei to Ray. He nodded and gave a thumbs up.

A very poignant and memorable moment followed. She carefully placed the fragrant garland over his head, and although too shy for a kiss on his cheek, she snuggled close to him for a picture - a picture of the past connecting to the future. And, boy, Raymond Chavez beamed!

Sadly, Ray Chavez, his comrades of the USS Ward and all Pearl Harbor survivors will be gone in a few years. Then who will connect the past to the future? Simple! You and I will. You and I will by supporting the historical icons of Pearl Harbor: the USS Arizona Memorial, the USS Bowfin submarine memorial and museum, the battleship USS Missouri and, coming next December to Ford Island, the first increment of the Pacific Aviation Museum. Ultimately, the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center will tie them all together.

These are the shrines that remind us of our heritage, of our founding values and principles: patriotism, loyalty, courage, honor, tenacity, reverence, sacrifice and commitment. Connecting this heritage to our future generations is our job now, and what better way to start than to ensure our own children and grandchildren see and absorb Pearl Harbor. In fact, let’s take advantage of a Christmas vacation day and take them there ourselves.

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