Over the years, I have traveled solo, with small groups, large groups, and with family and can state categorically that I don’t travel well with others. For 15 years after a trip to Alaska in 1992, my Mother banned me from ALL family travel because of how badly I behaved on the trip.
Since then, some of my best adventures were solo trips because of my ability to never meet a stranger and a willingness to try different things. Also, I like to be in control of my own schedule and some of my most memorable experiences have happened spontaneously.
A prominent example is my first trip to Hawaii in 2016. Hawaii marked the completion of my travel to all 50 states and December 7, 2016, was the 75th Anniversary of the Attack on Pearl Harbor and I wanted to learn more about that moment in history that galvanized the nation.
My decision in October to travel to Hawaii in December was challenging because the only information available came from the pearlharbor75thanniversary.com website.
I created an itinerary from the event list and then set out to determine what I had to do to attend those events.
There were special requirements for some and others required knowing someone to get an exclusive invite; neither of which I had or even remotely thought I had the opportunity to receive because of the timing and nature of the requests.
But, I forged ahead because the trip was a bucket list trip and the expectation was that this was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Little did I know that this would just be the start of something special because of the people I would meet.
My travel agent, Rebecca Johns of Creative Travel, Inc in Belmont, North Carolina put together a travel package from Charlotte to Honolulu for December 2–9, 2016.
It included accommodations at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki because the hotel was the sponsor of many of the week’s events and my focus was on meeting and interviewing the men and women of the Greatest Generation who would be there that week.
With travel booked and plans made, I caught my flight and started an adventure that would profoundly affect my life.
With a Hawaiian lei greeting, paradise welcomed me with open arms. I was exhausted from traveling what seemed like halfway around the world and once I checked into the hotel, I learned a valuable lesson — pay attention to prices on resort restaurant menus.
I ordered a grilled cheese thinking it would be cheap, quick and filling for a late night supper. It was quick and filling and delicious, but at thirty dollars, the most expensive grilled cheese I had ever eaten.
Had I paid attention, I would’ve ordered the steak at just ten dollars more. But, at that point, I had made it to Hawaii and an adventure awaited!
My first day in Hawaii, Saturday, December 3, 2016, dawned and I knew the first stop I had to make was the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in the Punchbowl.
The Punchbowl National Cemetery holds the remains of American heroes from both the Pacific and European Theaters of World War II, not to mention, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and the War on Terror.
And, my local Daughters of the American Revolution had charged me to place pink carnations on the graves of Ernie Pyle, Daniel Inouye, and then other heroes as I saw fit.
As walked the row upon row of marble markers, the unkempt stones drew my attention, and those men and women were the heroes I honored because we should never forget that all who serve are heroes. The time I spent with these heroes left a lasting impression on me.
After visiting the Punch Bowl, the first event on the itinerary I had prepared for the week was the Pacific Aviation Museum’s For Love of Country Gala Dinner at 6:00 pm which for those keeping score is 11:00 pm North Carolina time and anyone who knows me, knows I turn into a pumpkin after 9:00 pm.
So, this evening would be a challenge from a stamina perspective, but I was looking forward to meeting the members of the Greatest Generation who were on Oahu to commemorate the Attack on Pearl Harbor.
It was a red-carpet affair, and as I walked around amongst the dignitaries, a familiar face from television caught my eye. It was none other than Jim Nabors. I walked up and spoke to Mr. Nabors, and he asked, “where are you from?”
When I told him, North Carolina, he said, “sit down and tell me about it. It’s been years since I’ve been there. Does Mount Airy still have good barbecue?”
As the line grew to meet Mr. Nabors and I tried graciously to let others spend time with this legend, he just wanted to continue chatting like it was an old home week at that Baptist Church. That was one of many encounters that left an impression on this small town boy from North Carolina, and it made for a perfect start to a week of remembrances.
The Hilton Hawaiian Village was hosting the USS Arizona Survivors for the 75th Commemoration Week, and there was a planned autograph session Sunday morning which was high on my agenda.
This autograph session would be the turning point of my week in Hawaii.
As I waited in line for my opportunity to meet four out of the five remaining men of the USS Arizona, I saw a group of scouts waiting patiently in line, and I walked up, introduced myself as an Eagle Scout, and from that point forward, the scouts and leaders of Troop 13 of California welcomed me with open arms.
Until I got to know the group, I did not realize that they had made the trip specifically to support USS Arizona survivor, Louis Anthony Conter, whom I met that morning. The scouts who were there to support him delivered poignant salutes as they worked their way to his table.
These USS Arizona Survivors are a hearty group who saw the worst of what life could throw at you, recovered, and went on to fight again.
In September, this group lost another one of their ranks, Raymond Haerry whom they honored with a jacket and a photo on the table where they greeted a thankful public.
Lauren Bruener’s and Donald Stratton’s story has been told eloquently in each of their books, and both books have a common theme, survival against all the odds with help from an unlikely hero, Joe George.
Lou Conter’s story is one of perseverance after the attack. Lou received transfer orders to flight school, but those were lost on the day of the attack, and it took several months before the snafu was corrected.
Sunday afternoon’s schedule included a return trip to the Pacific Aviation Museum and the world premiere of the documentary film, “Remember Pearl Harbor,” produced by Tim Gray and the World War II Foundation.
Monday was the day I had chosen to visit the USS Arizona Memorial, the USS Missouri, and the USS Oklahoma Memorial. The first time I set foot on the Arizona Memorial I understood why people said the feeling you get being there was powerful and profound.
I can openly state that I cried many tears on that first visit to the Memorial and many more on subsequent visits because of the what the names on the wall mean to the many families affected by the Attack and the loss of the Arizona.
The Blackened Canteen Ceremony took place at dawn on Tuesday, December 6th, and by far, it made the biggest impression on me. The theme of reconciliation between nations after the conflict that was World War II must have been challenging for members of the military on all sides of the conflict.
Hatred of your enemy was rampant for many years after the war, but in 1991 at the 50th Commemoration of the Attack on Pearl Harbor, President George H. W. Bush spoke that “he had no rancor in his heart for Germany or Japan.”
His speech opened the door for better relations between the Japanese people and the American people by opening lines of communication between the aging veterans of the US military and Imperial Japanese military who were sworn enemies many years ago.
The story of reconciliation told during the symposium held at the Pacific Aviation Museum after the ceremony really brought home a point that even today, we need to find a path to understanding our enemies so that we can find peace and reconciliation with them.
The “December 7th Remembered — An Evening of Honor and Tribute” gala dinner delivered great entertainment and fellowship with many of the World War II veterans of both Europe and the Pacific.
I ended up talking to a group of men who served in Italy, and they regaled me of tales of derring-do with the ladies of Rome, Salerno, and Naples. But, they did not talk about combat or the horrors they saw except to say, “live each day like it was your last because we have seen up-close what it means to be here today and gone tomorrow.”
Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood were guests that evening and his comment to me after I thanked him for being here for the heroes, “no, you don’t need to thank me because it’s my honor. Thank you for remembering these men and women and what they mean to our Nation.”
A 3:30 am wake up call started Wednesday, December 7th for me because I had been blessed with an invite from Troop 13 to attend the Commemoration Ceremony on Kilo Pier.
This event was one of those that I had no idea how I would attend because of the difficulty obtaining an invitation. I met the group at 4:00 am, and we made our way to the designated parking lot at the edge of the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam and waited in line to enter the seating area.
The pier overflowed with people there to hear the words of Admiral Harry Harris and the other speakers charged with remembering the day that drew the US into World War II. An experience that even today, three years later, leaves me chilled and honored that I had the opportunity to attend and meet those heroes.
Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority honored Dorie Miller by rededicating a bust in his honor. Dorie Miller was the first African-American honored with the Navy Cross for his bravery during World War II for his actions on December 7, 1941.
He died later that year off Guadalcanal. Another moving ceremony that helped bridge a gap of understanding; this bridged the divide of race relations.
On Friday, it was time to head back home but not before I visited the Pacific Aviation Museum one more time to watch the dramatic reading of the play, “Righteous Revenge.” The play told the story of the Doolittle Raid of April 1942 that bombed Tokyo and the Japanese countryside.
Pat Sajak and Joe Moore were the leads in the play with dinner served afterward. Very quickly, I had to leave to catch my flight home which would take the better part of the next two days.
On the flight home, I reminisced of the people I had met and memories I had made.
I kept returning to the fact that what made this trip special was the fact that while I had an itinerary of things to do, I had let the natural ebb and flow of life and events take over which allowed for several surreal and special moments.
Attending a luau and getting to know a group of Eagle Scouts and almost Eagles from Troop 13 of Newcastle, California was one of the highlights of my trip.
Those young men helped me believe that our Nation is in good hands because of how they behaved and understood the significance of the events that took place that week.
The biggest takeaway from that week continues to be that we must never forget the sacrifices of previous generations, and we must continue to work to overcome fear and hatred of those peoples who were once our enemy.
I engaged with people that week and made lifelong connections that continue to surprise me to this day because of the impression they made on me and I on them.
So, next time you travel, try not to plan every waking moment, but give yourself room to live in the moment and allow yourself time to grab life and live spontaneously. You will be surprised how well that works out for you sometimes.