by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

He saw the planes coming and he thought they were ours. He saw them drop torpedoes and he thought they were dummies. He saw the explosions and still he thought, at first, even as the fires rose, that this was some kind of drill, some kind of exercise, and that someone had made a really dumb mistake and was using live ammunition.

“Then this tremendous explosion blew us across the ship,” he recalls. “We were covered in oil and soaking wet. I said to my buddy, ‘Oh, boy, somebody’s going to catch heck for this.’ “

His name is Richard Fiske. He is now 80 years old. Back in December of 1941, he was a bugler on the USS West Virginia in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. He still remembers when somebody yelled: “Get your butts to the battle station! Those are the Japanese!”

It was his introduction to war.

It would be a long relationship.

Fiske not only survived the attack on Pearl Harbor — he still has the mouthpiece from his bugle — but he also survived the bloody battle of Iwo Jima as well. That was considered a victory, whereas Pearl Harbor was a setback. But to hear Fiske tell it, there is little difference.

“Iwo Jima was horrible,” he says. “We lost so many. In our group, we started with 37 men. We finished with six. The Japanese had 22,000 on that island and
— God forgive us, I am sorry — we only took 337 prisoners. The rest died. When that many die in your hands and you live through it, you never stop living through it.”

From World War II to Vietnam

Monday is Memorial Day, the day we honor those who served this country. Our attitudes have changed over the years toward war and soldiers.

Back in World War II, the nation was brimming with patriotism. We were proud of our servicemen and servicewomen, and we danced in the streets when the war was over.

The Korean War was less patriotic and more curious. The Vietnam War was a crevice in America’s conscience. Subsequent military actions — the Gulf War, Grenada — are played out more on television than in our daily lives.

We have gone from pride in our soldiers, to scorn, to pride again. These days, World War II vets are held in their highest esteem since the end of that war. Movies and books — beginning with “Saving Private Ryan,” followed by “The Greatest Generation,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” all the way up to this weekend’s flag-waving “Pearl Harbor” — have nudged the World War II veteran from recalcitrant shadows to heroic heights. Some even seem to look back on World War II as the good war, redolent of a simpler time when we knew who was right and who was wrong.

But the real veterans — men like Fiske — know better than to swallow Hollywood hype. Fiske was there. He saw the blood. He visits the graves. No amount of stirring music is going to turn that into a positive experience.

Battle against hatred

“When they dropped the nuclear bombs and the war ended, we were in our tents. They asked us, ‘Why aren’t you celebrating.’ I said, ‘For what?’ They said,
‘The war is over.’ I said, ‘Oh.’ I just kept thinking of my dead friends on Iwo Jima. I didn’t think there was anything to celebrate.

“I just thanked God it was over and we didn’t have to kill any more.”

Fiske lived with his nightmares. Finally, a decade ago, he decided he no longer wanted hatred in his heart.

So he sought out his Japanese counterparts, including one of the commanders of the air strike on Pearl Harbor. He went to Japan. He met the man. They embraced. They wept.

Today, Fiske keeps up with several Japanese veterans. He has asked their forgiveness, and they have asked for his. Last week, at the Pearl Harbor Memorial, the 80-year-old bugler lifted the mouthpiece to his lips and blew taps one more time.

“I believe in defending the United States,” he says, “but if you think war is going to solve anything, it isn’t.”

And he’s right. Taking pride is good. But Fiske knows this: On Memorial Day, the best way to honor those who have died in wars is to scratch away at the hatred that starts them.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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