High Desert Hangar Stories

Dec. 6, 1941: The band from the USS Arizona played to the delight of those gathered on shore. They were all lost in battle the next morning. (Courtesy photograph)

Wreaths Across America: Honoring our fallen heroes

For quite a few years now, I have been a supporter of the Wreaths Across America program at Lancaster Cemetery. I always find it a rewarding experience to take the time to honor our nation’s veterans in such a spiritual way with our local citizens.

Many times, people question the need to place a wreath on a departed soldier’s grave, when so many living veterans are in need of some outreach themselves. My response to those people is that we have resources to make sure we have programs to honor our service men and women, living and departed.

Being the week of Dec. 7, I was looking for a connection between a simple commemorative wreath and the story of some sailors whose lives went from jubilation to the worst outcome possible in just a little over 12 hours. Sad to think that many times the role of musicians in our military is less appreciated, but on Dec. 7, 1941, U.S. Navy Band No. 22 would become the very best — not only in playing the music of the day, but also in fighting back.

The USS Arizona’s Gun Turret #2. The final task for Navy Band No. 22, as they performed their final war time duties, was to supply ammunition and powder to the gun crews. (Courtesy photograph)

Navy Band No. 22 was better known as the USS Arizona Swing Band and on Dec. 6, 1941, they were taking part in an on-shore jitterbug contest, playing for dancers and local residents. After a night of fun and good times, the young members of the band knew that before long they would need to be ready to play the national anthem as the colors were raised on the USS Arizona the next morning. So, with the good times on shore leaving a sweet afterglow, the sailors returned to their ship for the last time — not knowing that in the morning, their combat skills would be called upon and their instruments of music would be silenced forever.

As the band formed on deck that morning, they never got the chance to play one note, as the unfolding drama around them at 7:55 a.m. had battle stations being called. Instruments were abandoned on the run and the combat tasks of manning and supplying USS Arizona’s gun turret number two became their main focus, as they transferred munitions and powder. As the war raged around them, little did they know that they were at ground zero for the catastrophic event that would define the meaning of Pearl Harbor for generations of American citizens. Gun turret number two would be the location where a lucky hit by a Japanese dive bomber would penetrate the Arizona’s upper decks and find its way to the stored munitions that would incinerate the ship. The young smiling faces from the night before in an instant became just a memory in a picture captured at the previous night’s gala. The dreaded Western Union Man would be delivering the news that a beloved family member was never coming home. So many lost souls aboard the USS Arizona — every one of them had a special life and story to be shared, but a special gathering of young men known as Navy Band No. 22 will go down in history as the boys that played music to the youth of America and the next morning helped usher American youth into its loss of innocence.  

The names of the fallen from the USS Arizona and, as tradition dictates, the placing of wreaths to remember their sacrifice. (Courtesy photograph)

Today at Pearl Harbor, you can visit and see the last battle station of Navy Band No. 22. Gun turret number two still stands above the water. We remember the faces of these young men we see on this page and the price they paid for the freedoms we enjoy in America today, along with their shipmates. They are part of a long line of patriots who came before and after their service, and never came home.

And this brings me to that simple gesture of leaving some flowers, a note or a wreath at the grave site of a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine. Sure, we do it in their memory and to give thanks, but we also do it to teach. Future generations will look to traditions for guidance in the way our nation remembers its fallen, as well as the families of those lost. Those left behind will be comforted in their lonely hours without loved ones, when they see everyday citizens pause and make a simple gesture that says your loved one matters to all of us, taking part in a program like Wreaths Across America or finding the time taken to make a similar effort and show our respect. On Dec. 14, you can be a part of this history and take part in our community’s commemoration at Lancaster Cemetery.

When Navy ships leave the port at Pearl Harbor, their crews man the decks and pay tribute to the lost souls of the USS Arizona. In the cool of a December morning you can be a part of that tradition, as we also stand and remember those who were lost or served and gave those precious moments of life that we humans cherish so much.

I will see you at Wreaths Across America at Lancaster Cemetery, and am looking forward to sharing my last article here for 2019 in just a couple of weeks.

Until then, peace my friends, — Bob out …