News: A Memorial Day to Remember
Story by Sgt. Brian Tuthill
PEARL HARBOR — On Memorial Day, I was presented an offer I could not refuse and will never forget, “Would you like to ring the bell for fallen Marines?” How could I say no?
Early Monday morning I visited the USS Arizona Memorial, now officially known as the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, thinking there would be a simple ceremony to salute those who fell that December morning 69 years ago, and others who gave their lives for their nation before and since in battles around the world.
Little did I know I would become part of the ceremony in front of more than 100 people, standing alongside Pearl Harbor attack survivors and receiving rounds of applause.
My wife and I attended the flag raising at the memorial park at 8 a.m., watching a bugler play “To the Colors” as Old Glory was hoisted and lowered to half-mast by national park rangers. They then moved to raise each flag of the armed forces, but some I didn’t recognize. As the head ranger explained, the park flies the historic service flags of each branch as they were in 1941 during the Japanese attack.
“Of course,” I thought and smiled to myself, “the colors of the Marine Corps haven’t changed a bit.”
Looking around at the crowd of tourists, local residents and cane-clutching veterans, I was saddened when I realized I was the only active duty service member in uniform on the island of Oahu, out of roughly tens of thousands of military personnel stationed here, who attended this ceremony on our national day of remembrance.
After each flag was raised and we walked back inside the main park, one of the rangers noticed me in uniform and came over to ask if I would like to take home a flag. I wasn’t sure exactly what he meant until he took a red Marine Corps flag from the bag he was carrying. The ranger explained that it had flown at the memorial park for months and, now faded by the Hawaiian sun, they replaced it with a new one for the ceremony that morning. I was humbled and didn’t know what to do except thank him profusely and give a beaming smile.
My wife and I then roamed the park looking at the museums and gift store and eventually making our way across the park for the 8:30 bell ringing ceremony. The bell is large, probably weighing hundreds of pounds, with the words “USS ARIZONA” embossed into the metal. It was recovered by salvage divers after the 1941 attack, and its sister bell now hangs at my wife’s alma mater, the University of Arizona in Tucson. I noticed the pendulum had been attached for the ceremony, something seldom done other than Memorial Day and Dec. 7.
Pearl Harbor survivors, two Army veterans and a Navy corpsman, all three with their decorations of valor pinned to their hats, were making their way alongside the bell for the ceremony and more people crowded the seating area.
As we made our way to the rear of the seating area, the head ranger walked over and asked me, “Would you like to ring the bell for fallen Marines?” I was shocked, even more than when I was presented the flag earlier. How could I not take the opportunity to honor my fallen brothers- and sisters-in-arms? But did I rate to stand next to heroes of the Greatest Generation? Those who nearly 70 years ago watched the very place we stood bombed and thousands perish? I’m just a Marine who came here to watch.
With the encouragement of my wife, the ranger and even spectators around me, I agreed, knowing I may never have the opportunity to do something like this again. As I walked to the front, each of the survivors and park rangers shook my hand, welcoming and thanking me. I caught a glimpse of my wife smiling from the crowd as she moved to a better angle for photographs.
When they called everyone to attention and began the ceremony, I hadn’t been nervous like that in a long time. I noticed more visitors had started to gather behind us now, encircling the bell at center stage. The head ranger introduced each of us and explained that the bell would toll for the fallen of the United States, the State of Hawaii, and each branch of the armed forces.
“For the United States of America.” BONG! The long tone of the first bell was deafening and most people jumped. One of the veterans beside me quickly reached up and turned off his hearing aids and I noticed the orange earplugs in the bell ringer’s ears. I saluted sharply, lowering my salute slowly, matching the fading tone of the bell. As I lowered my hand, I noticed the survivors had been watching me and were following my lead.
“For the State of Hawaii.” BONG! Again, the sound caught people off guard. By now, people had bowed their heads, placed hats over their hearts or were wiping tears. As I saluted again, the survivors matched my movements in unison.
“Sergeant, if you would,” the head ranger said, motioning to the bell as the other ranger stepped aside. I took a deep breath and marched to position, placing my hand on the rope of the heavy pendulum. As I waited the short moment for my cue, I reflected on much — members of my family who have passed away, high school friends lost to senseless violence, and fellow Marines, especially the five of 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, with whom I served in Afghanistan and helped prepare their memorial services.
“For the United States Marine Corps.” BONG! I gave a sharp and terrific tug on the rope and the pendulum sharply struck the bell louder than before. The blast stunned me for split second, but I quickly centered the pendulum and released the rope to render another crisp salute.
As I faced about and returned to my place in line, I expected each of the Pearl Harbor survivors to do the same in turn, but the park ranger returned to his position at the bell and the veterans stood fast. While the bell tolled four more times, I saluted in sync with them, but was lost in my thoughts. I was the only one who actually rung the bell that morning, one of the few who ever has. All because I woke up early and wore my uniform. For the third time that morning, I was deeply humbled.
After the ceremony, my wife and I boarded the shuttle boat to visit the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, which I have visited previously, but never on a holiday. It had a different and more somber atmosphere than usual, but I could not help but think of my experience earlier as I looked at the Marine Corps flag in my hand. I felt like I was a part of history that day, and I will look back proudly on this memory for a long time.