A Nation Remembers, and Is Asked to Forgive

December 08, 1991|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Sun Staff Correspondent

HONOLULU -- It was the last of the big reunions for them, an emotional day when thousands of aged survivors returned to Pearl Harbor to pay their final respects.

It was a day that the president of the United States asked them to find forgiveness, and it was a day that schoolchildren sought the autographs of white-haired heroes.

"I'm an old man now. Pretty soon, we'll all be gone," said Joe Nemish, 74, of Lake Isabella, Calif. "This will be my last visit. I've come to say goodbye."

Yesterday, on the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Bush in three separate speeches paid tribute to the 2,403 military and civilian victims of the surprise attack that pushed the United States into World War II.

In a series of moving, personal reflections, however, the president sought to undo the animosity some Americans continue to feel toward Japan.

"I wondered if I would feel that intense hatred that all of us felt for the enemy 50 years ago," Mr. Bush said. "I wondered, 'What will my reaction be when I go back to Pearl Harbor?'

"I have no rancor in my heart against Germany or Japan," Mr. Bush said he has discovered. "None at all. I hope, in spite of the loss, you have none in yours."

Mr. Bush said that "all Americans" should acknowledge Japanese Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa's "thoughtful" and "difficult" expression of "deep remorse" for the attack, TC sentiment he said was "much appreciated by the people of the United States of America."

The president, who became tearful at points yesterday, also expressed regret for the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans, whom he called "innocent victims" who had committed no offense other than to share the ethnic background of the enemy.

Cressey Nakagawa, president of the Japanese-American Citizens League, said Mr. Bush's remarks put "the shameful episode into proper perspective at a time when perspective is so critically needed."

Japanese nationals and Japanese-Americans have feared that the 50th anniversary of the attack would revive old hatreds, particularly since Japan is now viewed by many Americans as an economic aggressor.

Signs of present-day Japan were abundant at yesterday's ceremonies: Many of the survivors who came to the USS Arizona Memorial visitor center used Japanese-made cameras to record the event, and they bought commemorative booklets that were published in Japan.

Japanese journalists and tourists mingled in the crowds, and several of the wreaths were from groups in Japan.

"This is no time for recriminations," said Mr. Bush, a Navy aviator in World War II who had decided to enlist the day Pearl Harbor was bombed and who was later shot down by Japanese anti-aircraft fire. "World War II is over. It's history. We won."

More than 6,000 Pearl Harbor survivors and their families returned to Hawaii this week to commemorate the terrible dawn that, it is said, ended American innocence, a day that Mr. Bush noted "turned boys into men and men into heroes."

In a two-hour surprise attack, the Japanese turned Battleship Row into a watery grave, transforming a relaxed island outpost into a ravaged war zone.

The greatest damage was inflicted on the USS Arizona, which sank in less than nine minutes after being hit by an armor-piercing bomb. More than 1,000 sailors died, including a father and son, and most of the members of 34 sets of brothers.

Most of the men are still entombed in the sunken battleship, and it was for them that the nation 50 years ago instinctively responded: Remember Pearl Harbor!

"I see 900 shipmates out there, is what I see," said 70-year-old Warren Verhoff, a survivor who volunteers at the visitor center. "They'll spend their young lives out there forever.

"When I woke up [this morning], the first thing I did was look out my window at Pearl Harbor. Somehow I had to reassure myself that it was still here, still safe," said Mr. Verhoff, whose house in the hills has a commanding view of the harbor Hawaiians once called "waimomi," or waters of pearl.

"I just don't want anyone to ever forget what happened here. It's something I think about every day. People must not forget, it's as simple as that. A lot of our kids don't even know about Pearl Harbor, and this year they'll finally learn."

Yesterday, thousands remembered at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu and at the Arizona Memorial, a gleaming white structure that spans the sunken ship.

The USS Missouri, the setting of Japan's surrender, provided the backdrop yesterday as Mr. Bush said:

"Over the years, Pearl Harbor still defines a part of who I am . . . and, indeed to all Americans, Pearl Harbor defines a part of who you are."

Yesterday, 6-year-old Charles Stephens looked through the crowds for the old men wearing the Pearl Harbor Survivors hats. The Honolulu boy wanted the autographs of the men the president had called "heroes of the harbor."

One survivor wrote in the boy's commemorative program, "I hope no wars for your age group." Another wrote, "Fair winds and following seas."

One survivor, dressed in an aloha shirt, leaned over to the boy's mother, Carla Stephens, and whispered, "Make sure you teach him."

Then, mother and son walked over to a memorial wall outside the visitor center, and under the blue Hawaiian sky, young Charles Stephens left beside it a wreath of white anthuriums inscribed with the words: "The children will remember."

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