December 6, 1941
“Wow, you look handsome!”
Sam Reed smoothed his dress whites, clicked his heels and saluted for the benefit of his little sister. “Like ’em?”
“They’re the bees’ knees!”
He reached down to tousle her curls. “Thanks, Bonnie. Now, I just hope I can keep them that way.”
“Oh, you mean, keeping them pressed and everything.”
“Yep, the Commander is pretty particular about his sailors’ appearance.”
“Well, I think you’re the best-looking one on your ship. And I even like the name of it. The Arizona. It sounds like you’re a cowboy.” She giggled a little.
“It’s the farthest thing from that, Bon. But I do enjoy being on the ship.” Sam took off his shoes and put them carefully back into their box.
“Guess you didn’t have much choice, did you, since Daddy is in the Navy too?” She put the lid on the box and smiled.
“I reckon not. Guess water and ships are in my blood.” He poked her in the ribs. “Maybe in yours too.”
“No.” She shook her head emphatically. “When I grow up, I’m going to be a veterinarian and move to Texas and work with horses.”
“Sounds good to me. But you don’t have to move away from Hawaii, you know. We have ranches here.”
“But I want to be an American veterinarian.”
“Hey, we are Americans. We’re just living out of the States right now. Because Dad and I are stationed here.”
“I know. But I want to be a real American.”
Sam let her win. “I know what you mean. Okay. You move to Texas and when I get out of the Navy, I’ll come live with you.”
Suddenly she turned imp on him. “But I thought you were going to marry Barbara and stay here?”
“Ah, so you’ve been snooping in my business, huh?”
“Reading my mail? Talking to mom?”
“I just looked at the card that came yesterday and mom told me you and Barbara were ‘serious.’ I think that means ‘going to get married.’”
He grinned. “It might mean something like that.”
“That’s okay. I like her. She’s pretty.”
“And more than that, kiddo, she has a beautiful inside and loves Jesus too.” He tweaked her nose.
“Then why don’t you marry her right now?”
“Well, because I haven’t asked her for one thing. And for another, I’m not finished with my enlistment yet.”
“Well, some other sailors get married.”
“Yes, but you know I want to go back to school and get my license to preach. So, when I get out of the Navy next spring, maybe we’ll get married and then move back to the States for school.”
“So that means you’d better ask her pretty soon.” Bonnie jumped up and put her hands on her hips for emphasis. “A girl likes to have time to plan.”
“Is that so, sis? Well, it so happens that I’m going to ask her this Christmas. But you’d better not tell!”
She squealed. “Oh, that’s so exciting! Does Mom know?” She clapped her hand over her mouth.
“Yeah, Bon, she does. It’s okay.”
“Well, I won’t tell anyone, I promise. But do you think I can be in the wedding?”
“I’m sure you can. We’d want you to. You’d better run along now. I’ve got to change.”
“Okay.” She started to skip out. “Wait, are you going on a date right now?”
He grinned. “I sure am. With the lovely Miss Barbara. I’m taking her to Sweet Pete’s.”
“Pooh!” Bonnie bobbed her head. “That old place is no fun.”
“We like it fine. Besides, who asked you?”
She rolled her eyes at him as she closed his bedroom door.
Sam carefully hung his dress whites up and changed into street clothes. His last night of shore leave. And he got to spend it with her. He could hardly believe she had been able to work around her schedule at the hospital so they were off at the same time. That didn’t happen very often.
He whistled while he combed his hair and brushed his teeth and splashed on some Old Spice. If only he could do like Bonnie suggested and marry Barbara now. Truth be told, it wouldn’t take much convincing. He was crazy in love with her.
He walked out into the kitchen and caught his mother around the waist and gave her a bear hug. “Dinner smells good, Mom. I’m sorry I won’t be here to eat it.”
She patted his hand. “That’s okay, son. You and Barbara have a good time, okay? You know, I like her a lot.”
“Thank you, Mom. I’m really glad you do. It means a lot to me that my two favorite girls get along.” He winked at her.
“Oh, go on with you, now. Just like your father. A born flatterer.” She swatted him away with her hand.
He gave her a peck on the cheek and slammed the door behind him. “Bye Mom. Love you.”
It was a short ride to the base hospital where Barbara lived in one of the dorms for nurses. He pulled up to the curb and hopped out, then took the steps two at a time. She was waiting in the lobby. Looking fantastic.
“Hi, beautiful.” He widened his eyes at her.
She blushed. And looked even more beautiful. “Hi.”
He took her hand and pulled her toward him. “You look so nice tonight. I think I’d like to take you out.”
“Thank you, sir, I accept.”
He grinned and opened the door for her to the outside.
The evening air was warm, very warm for December. But this was the island of Oahu, a tropical paradise. Even the Christmas season here was beach weather. He opened the car door and she slid in. He hurried to his side and got in. “Sweet Pete’s okay?”
“Sure. It’s our favorite place.”
When she smiled at him, he’d just as soon sit right here and forget food. But he put the car into gear. “Okay, here we go.”
They got their favorite table that night, by a window that looked out on the water. The waves were lapping gently on the beach, the candle on their table was melting slowly and the sweet sounds of Hawaiian guitar floated up to them. Sam tried to eat. He really was hungry. But he knew it would be such a long time before he saw Barbara again that he couldn’t focus much on his meal.
When Pete cleared their plates and brought them his famous pineapple cake dessert, Sam reached across the table for Barbara’s fingers. “I’m going back on ship tonight. It’ll be so long before I see you again.”
She turned her eyes full on him and he caught his breath again. How did a sailor get so lucky? Well, it wasn’t luck, really; he knew that for sure.
“I know. I can hardly stand to think about it. I’ll just try to keep busy at the hospital, I guess. Maybe I’ll volunteer for extra hours.”
“Just don’t you be giving any of those guys special treatment!” He squeezed her fingers. “I know how those boys operate.”
Barbara tossed her head. “Okay, sailor, I’ll try to remember that.” She gave him a saucy look.
“I’ll hold you to it.”
They scraped up the last bites of the cake and sipped their coffee. “Let’s go walk on the beach one last time before my leave is up, okay?”
Barbara nodded. “Let’s do that.”
The beach was a romantic white expanse, silvery water splashing onto the sand. Walking under the stars with his sweetheart at his side was sheer beauty. For a minute, Sam wondered what it would be like just to walk from this beach straight on into eternity with Jesus. He and Barbara together forever. He shook his head to come back to reality. She looked up at him with a question in her eyes. “Nothing, really. I was just thinking about being with you forever in heaven.”
“I’d like that. Really, Sam. But I was hoping we could be together here for a while first.” She cut her eyes at him and he grinned.
“Were you now?” He kissed her softly, then stood with her in the circle of his arms, the stars throwing silver dust down on them. It was an almost perfect night. “The only thing that would make this perfect, babe, is if I could marry you right now and not have to get on that ship tomorrow.”
“I know, Sam. I’ll miss you terribly. . . . Wait a minute! Did you just propose to me?”
He hadn’t even realized he’d spoken those words. “I guess I did, didn’t I? Now, wait, I’d better do it right!” He dropped to his knees in the sand. “Barbara Whitehall, you know I’ve been in love with you since the day I saw you coming out of the hospital pushing my best friend in a wheel chair. God brought you into my life, and if He’s willing, we’ll go into ministry together when this crazy stuff overseas clears up. So, I guess this little proposal is so I can brag about you to the other guys and make sure you’re all kept safe for me. But I do love you with all my heart. Will you marry me?”
She had reached out her hands and rested them on his shoulders. Now, she touched his face and smiled. “Yes, Sam, I will.
He stood to his feet and grabbed her around the waist and spun her around and around until her pretty flowered dress swirled around them both. When he set her down again, he took her hand and pulled her over to sit beside him where the beach was dry. “You’ve done it now, you know. Agreed to marry not only a sailor but a future preacher.” He loped his arm around her shoulders and hugged her.
“I’m not too worried, actually. I think I can handle you.”
“Ah, lady, you have no idea what a handful I can be!” He kissed her cheek.
“I’ll take my chances, sailor. The Lord and I are up to this challenge.”
“You know, that’s a good idea. Let’s just pray right now before I take you home. Let’s commit this new season to the Lord and ask Him to guide our future, okay?”
“I’d love that, Sam. Really.” She leaned into his side and he closed his eyes and held onto her.
“Father in heaven, I’m really, really happy right now. Thank you for bringing Barbara to me. Thank you for our love and for the promise of a future together. Lord, this separation is going to be hard. Neither of us really knows how long it will be. But I ask you to watch over us and watch between us and bring us back together again in Your time and in Your place. Because of You, we have eternity. Thank you for that. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” And then Sam walked his special girl back to the car and took her home. It was time for his next duty.
Sam savored his last swallow of coffee and stood up. He had enjoyed that breakfast, even if he was spending this sunny Sunday morning on the Arizona, instead of walking to church with his parents and siblings. Now, it was almost time for the raising of the colors on deck and the day’s activities to begin, such as they were on the weekend. Later, he would attend services held by the chaplain. It would be good but not quite the same. He did look forward to the day when he could worship in a regular church. With Barbara beside him. He smiled at that thought.
Sam looked to see Ned Calhoun motioning for him to come to his table.
“You hear that?”
Sam listened and shook his head.
“Sounds like planes overhead.”
“On a Sunday? Why would there be a drill today?”
“I don’t know, but. . .”
He didn’t get to finish. “General quarters. General quarters. All hands man your battle stations.”
Sam turned toward the stairs topside. “Let’s go.”
“Right behind you.”
And then the room erupted, and things went black. The lights were out, water was coming in and Sam could smell oil and smoke. The ship was swaying, the structure creaking. Sam was floating in the dark. Above him, there were crashing sounds. The air was so thick and black he could hardly breathe.
He wondered where Calhoun was. He had been right about the planes. But this was no time for regrets. He had to get above, find his battle station. He tried to propel himself forward but was having trouble getting his legs to work. He looked around for something to grab, anything with which to climb up out of the water. His hand landed on a piece of fabric and he pulled at it, but it wouldn’t budge. It was attached to somebody, but he couldn’t see who.
Explosions. Screams. Water. Fire.
The world was heat and pain and confusion, and the noise around him was deafening. There were men shouting and the sounds of rapid gunfire as well as repeated explosions. He was feeling a little faint but continued groping his way toward a tiny bit of light.
Sam strained his eyes and saw one of the cooks, lying under a beam, a mutilated hand reaching toward him. “Help me. I’m on fire!”
Sam pulled himself over as best he could. The man was a charred mess, his mouth a gaping, bloody hole and his skin black and crusty. He screamed and pulled at Sam. “Please! Help me!”
“I’m trying, Duke. I’m trying. Hang on!”
But even as he said it, Sam knew he couldn’t do anything. The man was dying. He gripped the scaly hand and prayed. “Oh God, be with us now. Take my friend in repentance and usher him into eternity with You.” He didn’t need to say Amen. Duke had stopped writhing.
He pushed away from the body and bumped into something solid and used it to pull himself up. Everywhere were splintered boards and sharp metal and burning water. There. His head was through. And now, his confused brain could see the world had gone crazy. Pearl Harbor was on fire. As far as he could see, the opulent waters were littered with wreckage and men. There were bodies floating around him now. Lots of them. His buddies.
He had to get away and try to help them. He grabbed a floating piece of steel and held on. The Arizona was under water. All he could see now as he floated out from it was the conning tower as it listed farther to the side, black smoke roiling up into the blue sky.
Sam was feeling really woozy now. He must have been hit. Reaching down with his hands, he tried to assess his injuries. His right leg seemed to be working fine, but his left. . .. Sam couldn’t find it. It just wasn’t there. Instead, he felt ragged edges of skin and protruding bone. He made himself stay conscious. And tried to start swimming with his arms and one leg. Surely there were rescue boats around.
But he never reached one. The whine of a plane overhead warned him, but there was nothing he could do anyway. And when the thwup, thwup of bullets in water sounded, Sam knew he wouldn’t need rescuing. His body absorbed the gunfire from an enemy turret and he pitched forward and quietly slipped below toward a hero’s grave.
Barbara sat beside her Christmas tree, holding a box addressed to her. It had followed her home, back from Pearl to her parents’ place in Michigan where there was snow instead of sand, firs instead of palms and peace instead of war. Yet, even here there were reminders that thousands of mothers’ sons were lying in a watery tomb in the Pacific. She could hardly pass a store window without seeing a poster to “support our boys.”
She wished she could. What she wouldn’t give to have Sam here, his healthy, happy self. She couldn’t bear to think of where his body was now. Nobody really knew, of course. Officially, he was part of the casualty list from the USS Arizona. One of the many who died with their ship.
Her world would not be the same. Her future would not be the same. Somehow, she had to reconstruct her goals and plans, without him. She knew God would help her. So many other girls were going through the same thing. And they’d do it. They wouldn’t let their men down. They’d carry on.
For the hundredth time since that awful day, Barbara wished they’d already married. At least, she would have had a little bit of time as his wife. Maybe there would have been a child on the way to help remember him. As it was, she really wasn’t anything. Not a widow with any real claim to him, just a girlfriend, a fiancée.
She smoothed her hand over the box. It was time to open it. She squeezed her eyes shut for just a minute and then lifted the lid.
It was his dress whites. Carefully folded and shining up at her, looking as spiffy as if they were ready for their owner to put them on. She held the box to her nose and inhaled. There was the faintest whiff of spice around the neck. And then she gave in to the tears. She pulled her feet up onto the couch, crushed the box to her and cried.
After a little while, she stopped, swiped at her eyes and talked to herself. “See here, you can’t be a baby about this. Sam wouldn’t want that. It’s time to do something.”
And that’s when she saw the little piece of paper sticking up on the side of the uniform. She pulled it free.
Hi, Barbara. This is from Bonnie. I guess I was the last person to see him in this uniform. He sure looked great. Mom and I thought it’d be good for you to keep it. He won’t need it anymore, and I think he’d be happy for you to have his clothes. I imagine his heavenly body is a different size anyway and the white up there is probably lots prettier! Well, Merry Christmas. You know, we get to be with him forever, right? Love from Sam’s little sister.
She cried again. Bonnie’s note pulled up his words from their last night together. The words of his prayer. Because of You, we have eternity. That’s what she had. Not life on this earth with him. Not marriage to him and children with him and growing old together, but eternity where all the best stages and seasons of life are one glorious present. It wasn’t what her heart wanted now, but it was a hope that was growing stronger inside her a little more every day.
Barbara looked out the picture window of her parents’ brick home and watched the snow blowing across the yard. We have eternity. Then she picked up the box and put Sam’s dress whites under the Christmas tree. That’s where they belonged. She had held him long enough. She needed to put the gift back in the hands of the One who had given it. Christmas was about sacrifice in the first place. And there was no greater love than that.
December 7, 1941 not only shaped American history from that day forward, it also changed many families. 1,177 men from the battleship USS Arizona died that day, among them twenty-three sets of brothers. All total, the casualty count from the attack on Pearl Harbor was 2,388. Many of these fallen heroes are still entombed in the tropical waters that cradle the hull of the Arizona.