Sunday, November 21, 2010

USS Arizona’s Last Band, Thanksgiving Day Reflection, & A Promise Fulfilled

Review by Bill Doughty

Seventy years ago today -- Nov. 21, 1940 -- Molly Williams and her family sat down to Thanksgiving dinner in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. Her brother, Clyde “Proke” Williams, would leave soon after, to duty as a member of the U.S. Navy Band Number 22. Within months, his band would be serving aboard the battleship USS Arizona.

Molly (Williams) Kent pays tribute to Clyde and all the other members of the band -- young men killed in Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

USS Arizona’s Last Band chronicles the history of the band through hundreds of interviews, letters, citations, news clippings and other sources. Kent’s comprehensive research and commitment to the 21 members of Band 22 document their short journey to immortality.

“As far as the United States Navy can ascertain, it was the only U.S. Navy band which was formed together, trained together, transferred together, reported aboard a ship together, fought together, and died together,” she writes.

Kent shows how relatively simple life was before WWII, before television, before air conditioning. Music and dancing were important pastimes, as was listening to radio programs like Jack Benny, The Shadow, Amos ‘n Andy and Fibber McGee and Molly, where Ms. Kent got her nickname.

“We lived in the middle of the Bible Belt,” she writes. “Our churches taught very strict morals. They also taught us bigotry and prejudice, and it would be many years before we overcame their teachings.”

The Class of 1940 had limited options: Dark clouds of war formed in Europe because of Hitler’s imperialism; “warfare” in Washington between Congress and President Roosevelt pointed toward a mandatory military draft; and a lack of jobs throughout the country was a legacy of the Depression.

In USS Arizona’s Last Band the author tries to answer the question on behalf of all the families who asked, “How long did they live, how did they die, and did they suffer?”

Ms. Kent acknowledges, “Caution must be used in writing about the Pearl Harbor attack, since so many books offer so many opposing opinions.”

Nearly half of the 2,403 people recorded killed on the island of Oahu, Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941 were from the Arizona. Arizona lost 1,177 of her reported 1,511 men. (Of the 334 Arizona Sailors who survived, fewer than 20 remain alive today.)

USS Arizona Dance Band at Bloch Arena, Nov. 22, 1941. (Official Navy photo by Tai Sing Loo)

Introductions of each band member near the beginning of the book, listing hometowns, nicknames, instruments, and other personal insights, contrast starkly with obituaries at the end of the book.

In between, Kent takes us to the Navy’s music school in Washington, to the ammunition ship USS Lassen (AE-3), which carried the band to Panama and then to Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii.

Kent describes the band’s role playing ceremonies, concerts, marches, dances and daily performances at colors. And, she tells us what life was like back on the homefront.

“Thanksgiving Day 1941 was difficult for the families of Arizona’s bandmembers. For most of us, it was our first Thanksgiving without our boys,” she writes.

I, Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate and set aside Thursday, the twentieth day of November, 1941, as a day to be observed in giving thanks to the Heavenly Source of our earthly blessings.
Our beloved country is free and strong. Our moral and physical defenses against the forces of threatened aggression are mounting daily in magnitude and effectiveness.
In the interest of our own future, we are sending succor at increasing pace to those peoples abroad who are bravely defending their homes and their precious liberties against annihilation.
We have not lost our faith in the spiritual dignity of man, our proud belief in the right of all people to live out their lives in freedom and with equal treatment. The love of democracy still burns brightly in our hearts.
Through Clyde’s and the other musicians’ letters home, Ms. Kent shows a surprising view of Hawaii. She takes us into the weeks-long “Battle of Music” and describes how the USS Arizona Band competed. They would not be able to compete in the Dec. 20 finals.

Read Molly Kent’s loving but sometimes bitter tribute to the USS Arizona Band to learn the depth of confusion, grief, resentment and anger that she and others experienced nearly seven decades ago.

Some of the strongest resentment is toward the treachery of Imperial Japan in 1941. But, anger is also directed toward those who don’t try to sort truth from myth. There is no evidence, for example, despite some reports in recent decades that the band was asleep on the morning of the attack; rather, Ms. Kent shows how they were most likely at their battle stations.

One “gossipmonger” was the minister of the church in Okmulgee, who reportedly “arose in his pulpit on Sunday, December 14, just a week after the attack, and thundered that all our servicemen were taken by surprise by the Japanese because they were all lying around on the beach drunk, after carousing all night in Honolulu. Just how that minister could possibly know that, living as he did in Oklahoma and having never been to Hawaii, is one of the mysteries we often encountered.”

This is just one of the fascinating insights in Ms. Kent’s heartfelt accounting, written “in loving memory” for “the best band in the Pacific” and dedicated to her family and the families of Arizona’s musicians.

The depth of the loss, she shows, must be matched with a commitment to remembering the sacrifice and loss of so many brave young Americans, our reflection for this Thanksgiving Day and the weeks ahead.

On Dec. 5, 2010 at 4:30 p.m., the U.S. Pacific Fleet Band will perform U.S. Navy Band Number 22’s set, with 1941 period music. On Dec. 7, 2010 Pearl Harbor Day will be honored at the WWII Valor in the Pacific Monument’s Pearl Harbor Visitor Center. The theme is, “A Promise Fulfilled.”
I asked Ms. Kent what she and her brother Clyde read prior to 1941. She shared the following with Navy Reads:

I do not remember many specific books that we read - In our young years, we had several Mother Goose books, Black Beauty, Little Women, Little Men, etc. As we grew up, I always had my nose in a book, but Clyde was more active. We had long walks to and from school, practice on three musical instruments each, homework and dates.
Although we lived in a small town of about 17,000 people, we had excellent teachers who did not allow us to speak bad English or to misspell anything. They also gave us a love of great literature which has lasted all these years.
I remember our Speech teacher making me stand up and repeat In Flanders Fields over and over to show the other students how to phrase that poem. I have always thought that turned out to be very ironic.
Since I met all of the Arizona musicians in Washington as they were shipping out and danced with many of them, they have remained "my boys."
So, speaking for "my boys," I thank you very much for your interest in their book.
Molly Kent

From the first chapter of In Flanders Fields and Other Poems (a 1919 collection of poems by John McCrae):
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

A rainbow over the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) falls onto the USS Arizona Memorial at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on July 2, 2010 at the beginning of Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class N. Brett Morton/Released)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Salute to Veterans - Atlantic and Pacific

This Veterans Day morning I’m enjoying a live broadcast/webcast on KHVH AM featuring a U.S. Pacific Fleet Band quintet, veterans and active duty servicemembers. The band just performed a set that included patriotic music, Amazing Grace, A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, Glenn Miller’s Tuxedo Junction and a surprise version of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody! (I’m almost finished reading a book recommended by bandmaster Lt. Cmdr. Dave “Duna” Hodge, Molly Kent’s USS Arizona’s Last Band. Review coming soon.
Meantime, I want to share a recent podcast I heard by one of the best interviewers in the business, Tom Ashbrook.

The discussion first focused on the early origins and history of the Atlantic and ended with current politics and peacekeeping in the Pacific. The discussion reminded the listener of how people can work together -- whether laying cable across the Atlantic to link North America with Europe in 1858 (permanently in 1866) or meeting and collaborating diplomatically and militarily as partners and friends in the Pacific to keep sea lines of communication open in the 21st century.
Here’s how On Point cued up the dialog:
“Four hundred thousand flights a year now zoom over the Atlantic. But the sea beneath was for eons the great barrier and bridge to humankind: Phoenicians, explorers, pirates, slave traders and sea captains... Simon Winchester brings the great Atlantic story back to light.”
“Admiral Robert Willard, head of U.S. Pacific Command, joined On Point Monday in the studio for a wide-ranging discussion of the Asia-Pacific region and American military policy. With President Obama in South Asia ... he also touched on issues relating to India.”
Today, free nations work together to protect commerce, communication and the “commons.” The waters of the Atlantic and Pacific and other oceans and seas lap at the shores of most nations.
On this Veteran’s Day we reflect on the quiet heroes, past and present, who served or serve to keep us safe.
Former Command Master Chief Jim Taylor, participating in the KHVH program this morning, reminds us to also think of the veterans’ families -- Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children and grandparents who share the sacrifices of their Sailor, Soldier, Airman, or Marine.
KHVH host Rick Hamada asks us to think of our veterans, not just today but every day. Another guest challenged listeners to teach their children history and heritage so they never take their freedom for granted.

A good place to start might just be a book.