My father’s war memories, laid to rest

birthday flowers from Jericha
Birthday greetings from my daughter!

Today, which happens to be my birthday, might have dawned all white and poofy outdoors, but instead Mother Nature provided a pleasant surprise:  Rare and gentle rain washing away leftover snow piles from ten days ago.

A fine day to sit by the kitchen window with a hot cup of fragrant oolong tea, episodes from life floating through.  Tropical memories were particularly vivid this bleak New Mexico day.

A synergistic conflation of Hawaiian family adventures popped into my mind like a big, beautiful hot air balloon brightening a dull sky.

I grew up in Massachusetts with my dad’s collection of Hawaiian music playing often on the living room stereo system.  Slack key guitar, pahu, ukelele, I loved them all, especially during those horrid winter hurricanes known as Nor’easters.

My father had been sent to the island of Oahu after a long, grueling post as an Army medic in the Philippines during World War II.  Raised with Quaker values, he put off his enlistment as long as he could.  Right up until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  From his description (and a bunch of old letters he wrote while there) it is clear that the Hawaiian time was the best in his life, up till then.

I had a tourist pamphlet that purported to teach potential visitors a bit of the Hawaiian language.  Most particularly how to pronounce it.  I fell in love with the name of a tiny fish:  humuhumunukunuapa’a.  AKA Reef Triggerfish. So greatly did I esteem this name that I bestowed it on a plastic pinto saddle horse standing on my bedroom mantelpiece.  I loved that horse, with a narrow gold-leaf sticker affixed to his rump, reading Moosehead Lake, Maine.

An all around lover of great places, wherever they may be, that’s me.  My bucket list of places to visit features Tuva alongside Botwswana.

But on with Hawaii.

A few decades after Daddy’s Hawaiian vinyl records spun mental magic I was delighted to land on a genuine Hawaiian beach — Haunama Bay — which features not only palm trees rising from soft sand, but also a glorious reef close to shore, where turtles swim alongside bright fish.  I had been transported there from New Mexico in order to take part in my daughter’s wedding, and on this day I could watch her swimming to the reef with several friends, cool beneath a friendly coconut palm.

Haunama Bay, fisheye lens view, from a tourist  website

(Tourist website)

Enthusiastic as she had been about me clambering into one of the plastic, fat-tired wheelchairs available for differently-abled visitors, one look at a chair made me clutch the armrests of my power renta-a-wheelchair ever more firmly.

“I could get into that thing,” I pronounced, “but it would take six beach boys in speedos to haul my butt out.”

And so I was allowed to people watch near the tourist tent, shaded by my big cowgirl hat and a palm tree.

Serene it was, till my roving eyes fell on a commotion at the far end of the beach and the reef.  A bunch of those colorful young fellows were running that way — my first suggestion that these weren’t just any old beach boys.  Soon a hefty pickup rumbled right by me, four more good looking dudes in Hawaiian print shorts in the back.  Twenty minutes after that it returned in solemnity, the crew laboring over something in the bed.  As they got closer I realized it was CPR they were doing.  The main guy stopped pumping on a bulging chest just before the truck pulled up alongside me.

“You have to keep going,” said another, in the flat voice of one who knows there is no hope.  And for a short while revival efforts continued, till abruptly the medical crew abandoned the pickup, heading towards a distant ambulance for a gurney.  Which left me free to examine the dead man.  No stranger to the sight of dead bodies, me.  He was a middle aged Japanese person in swimming trunks fully as bright as any others around, but he had obviously been in the water a while before his body was brought to shore.  Large red welts covered his cheeks and neck, perhaps from jelly fish bites.

“Welcome to Hawaii, Miz Em’li”, said my stern inner companion.  “You knew that tropical paradise has its dark moments, too.”

My spiritual self began saying Baha’i prayers for departed souls; I wondered how he came to his end here, with no family or friends apparent.  The beach was covered with small groups of people, lounging, running, swimming, laughing together.  Everywhere.  Why this man alone, with no one at all to follow him?

I never found out, as the Honolulu newspaper did not carry a word about the man who drowned at the bay one March day that was lovely in the patented Hawaiian manner.

But this mysterious Japanese man lying so alone in the back of a pickup truck, he had me there to care about him, to pray for his progress from this life, whoever he had been in life.

This morning I remember Haunama Bay, my joy at being in Hawaii at last, at being with my beloved daughter, the sense of adventure so strong.  And what became, to me, the honor of being present for a solitary Japanese man shortly after he left this world. Someone was there to pray for his good journey into unknown worlds.

My father was never able to talk about his Pacific experiences as an Army Medic, much, until I turned 30.  Then over dinner one evening his inner floodgates opened to pour enough information upon me to assure a long stream of sleepless nights.  His life-threatening bouts with malaria were the least of it.

Later on I realized that the prayers that came to me while sitting beneath the Haunama Bay palm were also to lay to rest what my father had finally told me about from the war, his war.  The graphic explanation for his long standing hatred of so much about Japan.

Pearl Harbor was another spot I visited in honor of my dad and the soldiers and sailors who died there and in other places around the Pacific Ocean, their families left without them…  But beautiful Haunama Bay, teeming with life and rich colors, was the place where I said goodbye to my father’s war stories.   Time to move into another, positive, more creative view of Earth’s many nations and tribes of people.

My ohana (Hawaiian word for family, big family) now is united in love for all mankind.  Including my father’s spirit in its place that is nowhere and everywhere that my heart is.  Peace and love to you, Horace West Lee, cranky old Yankee man that you were at the end.



A Baha’i prayer for the departed:

my God!  O Thou forgiver of sins, bestower of gifts, dispeller of afflictions! 

Verily, I beseech thee to forgive the sins of such as have abandoned the physical garment and have ascended to the spiritual world. 

O my Lord!  Purify them from trespasses, dispel their sorrows, and change their darkness into light.  Cause them to enter the garden of happiness, cleanse them with the most pure water, and grant them to behold Thy splendors on the loftiest mount.


Below lies the USS Arizona as seen from the memorial constructed above it.  This is only a portion of the roll of honor, listing the names of those who died on it during the Pearl Harbor attack.  While sitting by the hole in the floor that allows clear views of the rusting vessel I was joined by a couple dozen people, from many nations.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s