Pearl Harbor Day and the Heart of a Warrior

The following is a transcript of a speech I gave to a Veteran’s Day assembly in 2007.  It may be long, but not nearly as long as the long days put in by those in uniform, God love ’em.

Many folks don’t know much about the Battle of Midway, I hope you enjoy the narrative. 

Please keep in mind that it was a speech so it gets a little rhetorical.


I would like to take this time to explain, particularly to non-Veterans, the heart of the Veterans you know. I’d like to look at the difference between bravery and courage. Time is short; perhaps the best way to do this is with three short stories.

I. My Father

My Dad, whose birthday is this month, would have been 91 years old this year. However, he died from an accident in 1975, when he was 58. I’m not here just to honor my Dad, although I do honor him and he was and is a big hero in my life. Now when he died, my Mom and I thought it would be most appropriate to bury him in his uniform as an officer in the United States Navy. He had been out of the service for a while, but he loved the Navy and he loved his country, and was proud of his service. I can still remember him in that uniform – the stripes on his sleeve, the star of a line officer, and the decorations on his chest. He was grand.

Now he was at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed on December 7, 1941, as an officer on Curtiss. However, it didn’t occur to me until after he died that if he was in the service when the war started, he must have joined the service before it started. So I asked my Mom about this and she said, “Yes, after he graduated from college he knew that there would be a war, and he loved his country and wanted to serve, so he joined the Navy.” Now you have to understand that he was one of those guys who had to eat a bunch of bananas and drink a bunch of water the day of his physical so he could weigh enough to pass the physical. He really wanted to join.

Now my question for you is this: Was he being brave when he signed up, or was he being courageous?

II. The Battle of Midway

When Pearl was bombed on December 7, 1941, the United States declared war not only on Japan, but also on Germany at the same time. In fact, the decision was made in Washington to spend most of our war efforts and material and money on the European theatre, and then only when Germany was thoroughly whoomped would we be able to turn our full resources to the war in the Pacific.

Pearl Harbor was still burning, bodies were rising to the top of the bay daily, and that little outpost in the Pacific began to feel mighty isolated. Hawaii is about 2,400 miles from the coast of California, and Japan had already hit the place once. The problem was, as it turned out there were no American aircraft carriers sunk on December 7. What would keep the Japs from coming back to finish the job? And what protection could the mainland give Hawaii at that time?

Of course, Japan was not sitting around after Pearl Harbor. You have to realize that the conquest of the Pacific was had been long planned – in fact, since before the turn of the century.   Now they had spent their time taking over lots of islands in the Pacific even before Pearl Harbor, and after Pearl they kept acquiring them, building them into island fortresses, sort of island aircraft carriers.

Now from California to Japan is about 6,000 miles, Hawaii is 2,400 to the west California, and right about midway between California is a little island cleverly called: Midway! It is actually an atoll, consisting of two little islands, and is a mile long, more or less. Now it already had an airstrip on it – Pan American Airways had been using it as a sort of halfway resting point before the war. It would make an excellent base from which to make raids on Pearl Harbor and finish the job. If Japan could take over Midway and Pearl Harbor, the United States would be effectively shut out of the Pacific War for years to come since we did not have any staging area and we could not effectively convoy supplies to friendly nations like Australia. This would be a huge setback for the whole allied cause.

Admiral Yamamoto, the mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, who led the raid, and their staffs decided that an attack on Midway would be effective and relatively easy. Months of plans and changes of plans took place, and the plan that evolved was large and magnificent – and kept as secret as possible.

When the time came, about 160 ships– the most powerful concentration of firepower ever assembled in one place – left Japan for Midway maintaining strict radio silence. The battle array was as follows. In the forefront, four of the victorious carriers of the attack on Pearl – the Kaga, Akagi, Soryu, and the mighty Hiryu led the formation, surrounded by protective covering ships. Then came the massive battleships, including Yamato, where Yamamoto placed his flag, the largest and mightiest battleship ever built up until then. It carried 18 inch guns, capable of firing a 3000 pound shell over the horizon.   The carriers would launch their planes from far out from Midway and bomb the island, then the battleships would move in and pound the place. Then, in the rear, came troop ships carrying over 20,000 Japanese soldiers – many already seasoned from Japan’s earlier military aggressions. This works out to about 4 soldiers per linear foot of the island!

At a prearranged point, some of the Japanese ships split off as a diversion to attack the Aleutian Islands off Alaska, hoping to completely deceive the Americans.

The Americans, with few resources and no knowledge of what the Japs were going to do, found their condition menacing at best.

The battle began. Early in the morning of June 4, 1942, the Japanese launched a raid from the carriers. But – at 5:55 am, on a bearing 320 degrees from Midway, 180 miles out, an American scout plane was waiting for just such an event. He radioed in the sighting.

To the enormous surprise of the Japanese, we were waiting for them with whatever resources we could throw at them – which was under 30 ships – including the quickly patched up Yorktown, which had limped into Pearl just a few days before, serious wounded from the Battle of the Coral Sea. Rather than the six months that it was supposed to take to repair it, the dock workers slammed together some makeshift repairs with plywood and the like and sent her on her way in a few days.

Fifteen American Devastator torpedo bombers – alone, unprotected by fighter planes – from the carrier Hornet came in for the attack, all 15 were shot down. The next wave of 14 from Enterprise came in, 10 were sent spinning into the sea. The third echelon of 12 from Yorktown came on their run, only 4 survived. Out of the first 41 American planes, only 8 survived, and out of those only 4 limped back to their carriers.

What was our response? Imagine the thoughts of the other American pilots as they listened in their earphones, heard their friends going down. Imagine the feelings of the officers on the bridges of the carriers as they heard the deaths of their fine pilots. What was their response? Admiral Spruance on Enterprise turned to Captain Miles Browning, the air boss, and then said, “Attack! Attack.”

Now this battle raged back and forth for two days – the first naval battle in history where neither side saw the other side’s ships! With great heroism and valor on both sides, and with lots of mistakes, too, we finally emerged victorious.   Kaga. Sunk. Akagi. Sunk. Soryu. Sunk. The mighty Hiryu, sunk – but not before she got revenge, launching a final strike that ultimately sent poor, heroic Yorktown to the bottom.

Now out of this second story I have two questions. First, was that bravery or was that courage on the part of our wonderful pilots in those attacks.

And second, how was it that we were able to send a fleet to meet the Japs, and that we knew enough to have scout planes – catch this – 5 minutes of the clock, 5 degrees of the compass, and 5 miles off from where we first sighted the enemy? Well, the answer to this is in the third story.

III. Hypo

When Pearl was bombed on December 7, the Japs sunk eight battleships, among them was California.   Now California, as it turned out, had a band, as most capital ships did at that time. When California sunk, do you know what the band found out? Horns sink, drums float. Thus, most of the band woke up unemployed.

Now at Pearl Harbor, stuck in a humid basement, was a rather strange operational group called “Hypo,” led by Commander Rochefort. Rocheport’s job was to listen to the Japanese radio communications, decipher the Japanese code, called JN25, and try to figure out from what he heard what the Japanese were up to. This is quite a trick. Japanese was hard enough, and then when it was encoded in JN25, and then sent by Morse code, you had quite a confusing mess on your hands. When Rochefort heard of the band, he thought that – hey! – these guys are used to reading notes, thinking in terms of syncopation and rhythm and all that, and translating these notes into sound. They ought to be pretty good at going the other way, too, so he got them to work for Hypo.

As they began to work on JN25 and these intercepted transmissions between ships, it began to dawn on the guys of Hypo what was afoot. By long and difficult hours, by literally millions of punched IBM cards, by many strange conversations, slowly slowly it began to become apparent that something huge was coming down the pike – but where? And when? It got to the point that Rochefort – so they say – kept a bowl of pep pills on his desk, and he and the guys would take some and work for three days straight. They gave up their free time, the worked frantically, but they pieced the puzzle together bit by bit.

Finally, on May 24, Admiral Nimitz scheduled a meeting to make some final decisions. By then Hypo had told him that Midway was the target, but when? And how much was being thrown at Midway? Rochefort and his crew had been working non-stop, and he ran into the meeting one-half hour late – but he had in his hands the answers, just gleaned by the hardworking Hypo. Although it was a breach of military courtesy to have kept the Admiral waiting, Nimitz later said that because the information brought to him he would have forgiven Rochefort anything short of treason or murder! The stunning thing is that later that very same day the Japanese changed the code, and stopped using JN25!

Nimitz then sent out all that he had, and just in time, because the task force was just in place at 5:55 am on June 4. Our planes were placed within five minutes, five degrees, and five miles due to Rochefort and Hypo.

Naturally, there is far more to the story than time here allows us, including the valiant work of the submarines in the Pacific gathering information and forwarding it to the boys of Hypo.

But, the question for us to consider is: Were the men of Hypo being brave, or were they courageous – or neither?

IV. Bravery vs. Courage

Francis Schaeffer says that the history of a country can be found bound up in the history of its language.So. What is bravery, and what is courage? Aren’t they the same?

In today’s English usage they have become, actually, about the same. If you look up “bravery” the dictionary says “courageous” and if you look up “courageous” it very well may say “bravery.” But that is because we have lost verbal precision across the years. “Bravery” can be though of as the ability to be bold in the face of a fear, a threat, or an obstacle. “Courage,” similarly, is the ability to confront a fear, a threat, or obstacle.

What is the difference? It is this, and it is critical. Bravery is something innate in a man, it is different for everybody, and it changes. Bravery is wonderful, and should be sought after, I wish that we would all be brave. But, with bravery, there comes a certain point at which bravery retreats. That is, when faced with a large enough fear or obstacle, bravery says, “This is too much, I’m going home.”

Courage, on the other hand, can be best understood by its roots. The word courage is spelt “c-o-u-r-a-g-e” which comes to us from the French, “cour” which comes to us from the Latin, “cor” which means “heart.” From “cor” we get the word “coronary” or sayings like, “This struck me to the core of my being.” “Cor” relates to who we are.

Courage, then, says that regardless of the fear or threat, I am going to do whatever it takes, even to the giving up of my life. Courage arises out of our sense of love – love for the families you Veterans left behind to go into the service, love of duty, love of country, love of your fellow soldiers. Courage arises when there is a profound sense of love – and love means giving your everything for those you love.

Bravery is wonderful, but it can change. (As a side thought, if you look up “bravery” in the Oxford Dictionary, it says that it comes from the Latin word for barbarian. I’m not sure it has an entirely noble past!)

Courage, springing out of love, acts in a uniform manner – and with surprising results. Courage is what makes the small person able to do mighty tasks. Courage makes the barely brave person strong to the finish – even to loving not your life to the death.

To paraphrase Helen Keller, then, “The world spins not just because of the mighty thrusts of its great heroes, but also because of the tiny pushes of its smaller heroes.”

In this context, then, warfare is a love story. You see, a soldier without a heart may still be a brave soldier, but he is only a good soldier. A soldier with a heart is a warrior. Warfare – and courage – is love coming to the rescue.

So in all three of these cases – my beloved Father, the intrepid pilots, and the men of Hypo – these fine people were working courageously for their families, their country, and their fellow warriors.

I would say, then, that in the breast of every Veteran here today there beats a courageous heart.

V. What Veterans Can Do Now

Veterans, I am confident that each of you did many courageous things during your service – whether you enlisted or were drafted, whether you were in peacetime or wartime, whether you were front line or rear echelon. So here is what I suggest you do.

Look at the story of your time in the service. Open the book to some of your courageous acts, and, for starters, enjoy them! Be glad you were able to be courageous at times, and that you did mighty things – even if they were just the “small pushes” that help the overall effort. Take pleasure in those courageous things, giving glory to God, after all, because He is love, the source of your courage.

Next, I suggest you pass these things along. Be like the band of California – don’t die with your music still in you. Now we have a bunch of courageous men and women who have volunteered to defend their families and their homeland. Get in touch with groups like your Veteran’s organizations – which I’m sure most of you have – and with groups like Wounded Warrior. Pass your story along.

And then, I suggest that your write out your story and find ways to get it to others. Don’t be shy – after all, you don’t get all the credit. Besides, after you’re gone the credit doesn’t do you any good anyway. Tell others, write your story, and pass it on. Today’s younger generation doesn’t have courageous people for heroes, they have rock stars, athletes, and the entertainment industry for heroes – none of whom do anything brave, let alone courageous. Give these young people some true stories of courageous heroes to look up to.

VI. Most Courageous Act

To close, I’d like to take one minute to tell you of the most courageous deed in the history of the world. I heard about this from my Father.

One Easter Sunday, after church, we were all standing around in the dining room and my Dad said, “You know, if I were the only person alive, if I were the only sinner in the world, Jesus Christ would still have died just for me.” The Bible says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whosoever believes in Him would not perish, but have eternal life.” Jesus Himself said, “Greater love that this has no man, that He would lay down his life for his friends.”

And so, my fellow Veterans, on behalf of my family, I thank you for your service, I admire your acts of bravery: but I salute you for your service.

Thank you and God bless each of you.

About Tom Schweickert

Tom Schweickert, EA, CPC, CPT brings a unique combination as a Life Coach, Personal Trainer and Money Coach to help folks negotiate these interesting times.
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