“Officers and Crew,
     … bring this ship alive!”

With these words issued by Mrs. Beverly Young, Sponsor of the USS Pearl Harbor, the newly commissioned landing ship dock came alive as the rails were manned by Navy and Marine personnel.

The emotional moment brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat. The honor and uniqueness of attending this special event was indeed overwhelming. My only ties, besides being an American, to this day were memories from childhood of a thing called “war” and my husband who stood beside me who was actually in that war.

As we baked in the sun this May 30, 1998, I could not even consider this physical discomfort of any importance. The purpose of being there on this Navy dock at Coronado, California, was to honor the men and women who gave their lives at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the survivors who fought and lived to tell of the carnage of that fateful day, and to commission this grand ship in their honor and memory.

As I sat and or stood next to John during this commissioning ceremony, I felt as if my heart was literally on his sleeve. Sharing this moment with him was indescribable, for I had realized some time ago, that there was no way that I or anyone not there on that awful day could ever fully comprehend what he and the other survivors felt either back then or now. While I can not place myself in the shoes of the survivors, I was honored to witness this special event. I’m sure any words I can say would not do it justice for them. I could only look on with pride for the men and women who fought that day to help preserve the freedom that you and I enjoy today.

The ceremony and rituals of commissioning a ship were awe inspiring in themselves. Among the traditions, I found the role of women to be more than a token of appeasement.

Since 1846, our ships have been christened by women. Whatever the ship‘s purpose, it is only a huge mass of metal until it receives a “woman’s touch”. Tradition has it that the spirit of the woman chosen to sponsor a ship, enters the ship upon christening it and remains with the ship forever. The ship becomes a part of her and she becomes a part of it. Mrs Young’s spirit will reside in the USS Pearl Harbor LSD 52 wherever it sails throughout the seven seas of our world. She christened it February 24, 1996.

Built by Avondale Shipyard in New Orleans, it was not an official vessel of the U S Navy until the ship builder released it and the Navy accepted it. To accomplish this in traditional protocol, the ceremony began with the Honors of the Admiral’s March and a 21 gun Salute. The blasts of the big guns reverberated in the ship’s harbor, it’s power jarring the concrete where we stood. Then there was the March on the Colors and the National Anthem. The Invocation was not the traditional prayer, rather an Irish tune played on a tin whistle by Captain J. R. Madden Chaplain, USN. The tune is a blessing said to invoke favorable winds for the ship and crew wherever it sails throughout the seven seas.

The Welcoming by the Mayor of San Diego, Remarks by Platform Guests and the Principal Speaker’s Address preceded the formality of Placing the Ship in Commission by Vice Admiral Krekich USN. The Breaking of Commissioning Pennant followed. The red, white and blue streamer with seven stars represents the seven seas and signifies the acceptance for service and the entry of a ship into the active fleet of the United States Navy. Then official Command was assumed by Commander Bird, USN. The ship was now in the hands of the Navy and the First Watch was set.

It was at this point that the Ship’s Sponsor instructed the officers and crew to “man the ship and bring Her alive!” With those words the sailors and marines who had been standing at ready on the dock did indeed run to man that ship. Bells and whistles sounded. The radar unit high above the Bridge, and reminding me of a huge bumble bee, went ballistic as it was put into motion, twisting and turning in all directions seemingly at once. The rails were lined with sailors in whites and marines in fatigues with rifles in hand. It was truly an impressive site. Families of that crew must have been bursting with pride. I can’t imagine anyone not feeling proud of that group of young men and women, over 800 strong. Somewhere during all of the manning the ship activities, Commander Bird’s Reporting for Duty, his speech and the Benediction by Chaplain Madden, a fly over of Navy jets were a crowning display of pomp and circumstance.

    “Lest we forget…”

Among the speeches and remarks, none was more sobering than the one by our Secretary of the Navy, The Honorable John H. Dalton. Mr. Dalton liken our military defensive readiness of today with that of the political climate just preceding the attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1941 our forces were not expecting and were not ready for that attack. Devastation and chaos reigned in the aftermath of the surprise attack by Japan that Sunday morning. Our world was forever changed. Our freedom was in jeopardy like it had never been since we had become an independent nation. The World’s freedom was in jeopardy as well. While our forces did their best, they were no match for that battle. The Japanese had succeeded because of their element of surprise. Mr. Dalton reflected that our current readiness status is no better. Why? We have the latest state of the art in defensive warfare equipment. However, we, the forces of these United States, do not have a defense for our country against the scud missiles like those used by Hussein during Desert Storm. I don’t know about you, but that was like a “sucker punch” for me.

    “Nations Battle Cry”...

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, our nation rallied together. “Remember Pearl Harbor” became our Nations Battle Cry. While we tend to be complacent today, I think I know my fellow Americans enough to believe that most of us want a strong defense for our Country. As Mr. Dalton pointed out, if we want to command authority and respect, we must be at least a bit feared. The US has never placed itself in the role of aggressor, but neither should we let our defensive position deteriorate to the point of becoming an easy target. As we all know, bullies generally pick on someone smaller or weaker than themselves. In a time and society where cutting budgets and shuffling funds to more social needs have become a top priority, the defense budget has frequently come under fire and suffered numerous cuts. The Secretary voiced his concerns and perhaps we should all perk up our ears and hear the voice in the wilderness. Certainly social needs should be met as is reasonable, budgets should be cut where fat exist, waste and fraud should be eliminated, but how can we in the name of responsibility to our safety, let our nation’s defense go to pot. Politics should not rule this one. We should all be united in our goal to keep America safe.

After the ceremonies, as John and I toured the dock and ship, we were frequently greeted by members of the ship’s crew. Rank was a low priority of recognition. All seemed as one in wanting to talk with the survivors and express their gratitude for their role in the events of that fateful day. But as I witnessed hand after hand extended to John and the others, I realized and offered my own comment that what he and the others did that day, and the days that followed, would have all been in vain if not for those who have come after them that still “man the deck and keep the ship alive”. If not for our young people who now follow in their footsteps, our freedom would be an easy target, a house built on the sand.

One after the other, I witnessed these admirable young people voluntarily promise, “We’ll take care of Her, Sir. … She’s a special ship, Sir.... We will remember..” I witnessed the special bond that seemed to immediately form between the sailors of yesteryears and our modern highly technically trained sailors of today.

The USS Pearl Harbor LSD 52 is a landing ship dock capable of transporting and launching both troops and all types of vehicles and equipment. We saw the tie downs for helicopters, the hole for the heavy equipment, the tanks and trucks flanked by sharp marines. We stood on the Bridge and saw the computers for navigating, and talked with the sailor who still did it the old fashion way just in case that computer gets a headache or goes AWOL. We talked with the Captain who assured everyone that the USS Pearl Harbor will symbolize the Nation’s Battle Cry in every sea She sails and every port She enters.

This magnificent ship can not only transport troops and all types of equipment, but She is fully equipped to be self-sufficient and has the latest technology available. If needed, She can deploy her troops and equipment, then back off to become a high tech communications command center. Equipment and technology are not the only new and improved things aboard this ship. The Pearl
( my nickname for Her, for She will be a jewel on the high seas) is the first ship to be designed with women crew members specifically in mind. Special attention was given to the different needs of women from men and their spaces and facilities were designed accordingly. That’s not to say that their quarters are any more elaborate than their male counterparts. I personally saw nothing fancy any where on the ship. And the limited space shared by so many would give most of us claustrophobia. No, whether man or woman, theirs is a simple life with an important job to do. That job is foremost during every waking moment. Talking about commitment, I’m sure it must take on a whole new meaning for these young people. I personally salute them and admire their courage and dedication. I also recognize their innocence and pray to God that they never experience first hand the need for the raw courage and dedication of the survivors for whose namesake they now sail. Yet, of the ones John and I visited with, we sensed that they would be just as willing and ready to do whatever they are called upon to do. Reality is, the promise to “protect and defend” is very serious commitment indeed. It is a reminder that Freedom is a privilege. We enjoy that right only because of those who committed themselves to protect and defend it for us.

Touring the ship with John and I on the Sunday following the commissioning ceremony, was John’s long time buddy and friend, Stanley Thomas of Devine, Texas. John and Stan joined the Navy in 1941, then traveled together to San Diego where they were trained and shipped out. After war games in the Pacific they sailed to Hawaii. They had only been there a couple of weeks and were waiting for orders and duty assignments.

On that Sunday morning, John and Stan and some other buddies were preparing to go into town on liberty. It was a beautiful Sunday morning not unlike other tropical days on the island. Young and far from home, a day on the town was the order of business for these new sailors just out of boot camp and as they would admit, still wet behind the ears. They had just enjoyed a nice breakfast. And a good thing, too. For while shortly thereafter food would be the last thought on their agenda, I’m sure their bodies faired better for having had that nourishment in the nick of time.

Standing in the head – the bathroom – on the second floor of their barracks, John and his buddies noticed a plane coming in extremely low. The plane fired several rounds at a camouflaged fuel storage tank located immediately behind the submarine base, the bullets ricocheted off the tank and hit the ground at the top of the berm surrounding the fuel tank. At this point, thinking that it was something to do with harbor maneuvers, a buddy remarked, “That guy better be careful. He’s gonna be in trouble.” Then surprise and comprehension dawned as John stared at the sign of the rising sun on the plane’s wing as it past over head. It carried a two man crew with a torpedo strapped to its belly. As the bombs dropped on the other side of the harbor from where he and Stan were, they ran on the double to the armory where they were issued ammunition. A rifle and a bayonet were small comfort and even smaller defense weapons against planes with bombs, torpedoes, big guns, and two man kamikazes on suicide missions.

In December 1981, Stan, John and I were in Hawaii for the 40th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor. John had taken me there in 1976 for the 35th Anniversary, but he was low key about it. Having a friend who had been in World War II and still had horrible nightmares from having his buddies blown away on the deck around him, I respected John’s privacy in the matter and never questioned him. However, with Stan joining us on the trip in 1981, he and Stan retraced their steps of that day. I listened to their commentaries and took pictures. After that, John became more verbal about his experience. And I’ve learned, too, some things that I had been too young to understand at the time – a thing called “war”.

Stan and John have remained friends all of these years. I am humbled by the uniqueness and wonder of it all. Some of their buddies they had planned on doing the town with that day, they never saw again.

Stan, John and I also attended the 50th Anniversary in 1991. It was an humbling experience. John and Stan, as did the other survivors, wore their special Pearl Harbor Survivor hats. Everywhere we went, they were greeted by both citizens of Hawaii and tourist. People shook their hands, hugged their necks, and said, “Thank you for what you did,” with tears in their eyes. Some even ask for autographs, but these were not “star status” seeking people. There was a respect and reverence for the Survivors all across the Islands. We found a repeat of this attitude in and around San Diego, and especially from the military personnel. Again, rank, either then or now, did not matter, they were all brothers and sisters of a common cause.

As I stood on the fringes of all of this, I reflected how minute my contribution to life and country have been in comparison. What I now share with you I trust will in some small way serve to help others become more aware of the significance of this part of our history, our heritage and our future. Freedom can not be taken for granted. A very high price was paid for it. Let us all revere it, protect it, defend it and support it in both words and in deeds.

    US Navy on the Internet...

The US Navy is also on the Internet. The USS Pearl Harbor will soon have its own web page. That word straight from Captain Bird. Email to and from crew members will soon be a new way of life and contact for those at sea. I visited with one of the base doctors, Cdr. Carroll and his wife. Mrs Carroll was actively involved with helping navy wives get set up with email access so that they can stay in touch. She related how much nicer it is now that she can stay in touch with her husband when he’s at sea. She told about sending an email asking for help with their son’s math problem. The next morning, solution received.

    Crew morale is important...

The new Navy is promising to be more sensitive to morale of the crews with closer contact with families and shorter times away from home.
“Join the Navy and see the world.”..get an education...plan a career…
one might say that today's Navy is “user friendly”.

I didn’t join up as a recruiter, but all of those young men and women seemed pretty happy about where they were. That makes me happy because we need them and we need them to be happy with what they’re doing. That happiness equates to a better chance of a job well done. A job well done equates to better defenses for me and my country. Get the picture?

By Doris Newnam

Article written and first published in D Texan Magazine, Summer 1998 Edition.
Reprinted on the web, November, 1999 by Doris Newnam, Author

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