- Historic Sites
The Biggest Theater
Revisiting the seas where American carriers turned the course of history, a Navy man re-creates a time of frightful odds and brilliant gambles.
December 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 8
Some memories are good and some bad, but the fact is that they change over the years. All of us who were part of it can recall how angry we were about the war against the Axis Powers. We were mad at all of it: Pearl Harbor, enemy atrocities, everything. We were also angry on the personal level at the necessity of going to war, at the consequent disruptions to our lives, at the risks we had to take, the privations, and the all-pervading, constant fear. We hated it, or thought sincerely that we did. And yet, somewhere inside us, something told us to record what we were doing, commit it at least to memory. If we thought about it— when we thought about it—we knew, by everything we had learned during our whole existence, that what we were experiencing was extraordinary and would remain so forever, as the high point in our lives.
Today, nearly half a century since the close of the greatest war in history, most of us believe it was exactly that. More and more of the men and women of the 1940s, looking back on their youth’s great adventure, want to recapture the camaraderie, the heady feeling of health and ability and daring—and yes, truly, the irresponsibility, and non-responsibility—that were associated with our part of that war.
Recognizing the desire of so many now aging servicemen to go back at least once to some of the places where they participated in making history, tour companies have recently been offering Memory Cruises. The majority of such companies seem to be staffed in large part by members of the very fraternity they are seeking to serve. The president and founder of one such is the sole survivor of his Royal Air Force aircrew class of 486 persons. He is Bob Reynolds of Valor Tours, Ltd., who, as he puts it, for thirty-five years tuned out the war and its difficult memories. Now he feels it his duty to speak for his forever silent comrades by serving as tour coordinator for Pacific Memories Cruises. Moreover, noting the rather lavish memorials Japan has already placed on a number of once strategic islands, he has become involved with moves to put appropriate memorials to our own side there too. Most recently ground has been broken for one on Guadalcanal. A stirring Japanese memorial, with a healing inscription, is there already. Fund raising for our own memorial is in full swing—it will be dedicated in August—and all governments concerned are in full support.
Nimitz had one very important advantage: intelligence information far superior to anything available to Admiral Yamamoto.
Sail with us on a Memories Cruise where the Pacific War was fought,” the brochure said. The area involved was not that of the entire war by any means, but it was a part of it that I had studied and never seen. It was an important part too, and it had all taken place more than forty years ago. Though still in good health, my wife, Ingrid, and I could not ignore the accumulating evidence of the passage of time. This might be our last chance; we took it. That was how we met Bob Reynolds and began to understand what is driving his clients. The sands of time are nearing the bottom of the glass. The same thing is driving us too.
Our cruise ships (we embarked in two of them in succession) were very new and beautifully appointed, run by the Royal Viking Line, the Rolls-Royce of tour-ship companies. We knew we would lack for nothing in terms of comfort, excellent food (too much of it, of course), and all the other amenities. But we had come for more than a pleasure cruise.
My Pacific war had been fought in submarines. I wanted to see some of the rest of it, in particular where history was made in those terrible early days. At that time, confidence in our nation and our leaders was all we had to sustain us in the face of an enemy suddenly grown ten feet tall. I wanted to try to visualize and experience vicariously, if I could, some of the decisions Adm. Chester W. Nimitz and his staff had to face and the problems they had to surmount. And by going to the places where the battles were fought and letting my imagination take over, I want ed to feel how it must have seemed to those on the spot. My outlook, of course, would be almost entirely naval; I had grown up in a Navy family and had spent a lifetime in the Navy myself.
When I heard about Pearl Harbor, I was an ensign, at submarine school in Groton, Connecticut. Six months later, aboard the brand-new submarine Trigger as a junior-grade lieutenant, I took part in the Battle of Midway, though without discernible effect. Two months after that, in August, we were on patrol in the Aleutians. I was the communications officer, and though it was contrary to rules, I decoded messages not addressed to our ship because they told of our Navy’s early awful losses off Guadalcanal. A sudden night battle had taken place near tiny Savo Island. Four of our best cruisers had been sunk, and a fifth nearly so. What had caused this great defeat?