The Sound of Freedom
by Graham McNeill

In the fall of 1968, my father received a transfer to PACAF, Hickam AFB, Honolulu, Hawaii.  We spent four years there.  My father was a USAF fighter pilot, a veteran of WWII, Korea, and Viet Nam.  My mother was a Marine – a veteran of WWII – so I may be a bit biased when it comes to veterans, and I will make no apologies for it.

Among the many memories I have of Hawaii, some of the strongest are those of the USS Arizona.  I remember we would visit the Arizona several times a year.  We were privileged to take the Navy transport; not the one public one.  The Navy transport was small – maybe 20 seats – and we always had the best view of Pearl Harbor… Or maybe it was just the long way we took to the Arizona.

I remember the feeling of peace aboard the Arizona more than any thing else.  I remember the names on the wall – the bell, the model, and the ghostly shape beneath the water with the rainbow reflection of the sky in the film of oil still seeping from the ship’s wounds.  Sometimes, we would bring leis.  We would cut the strings and watched the flowers float over the ship.

The people around us were both tourists and military personal.  We had all come to pay our respects to the crew and to remember others who have given their lives for freedom, but I believe we returned because of something else: the feeling of peace and tranquility around the Arizona… It’s hard to explain.  Considering the violence her and her crew endured, it is like she is giving us the gift of hope and new life.  The outside world – politics, and worries – do not infringe upon the Arizona.  The harbor noises are muted – barely noticeable.  Children are impossibly well behaved and babies don’t cry.  My mother told me all her troubles seemed insignificant on the memorial for the Arizona.  Perhaps this is one reason we visited her so often.

On the Arizona – I think that’s where I heard it first, although I have no idea who said it or what it meant at the time – the simple phrase, “Listen – that is the sound of Freedom.”

In late 1960’s, I remember B-25’s, B-17’s, P-40’s, AT-6’s (in many forms and markings) and other WWII period aircraft flying overhead in formation.  The AT-6’s (advanced trainers called Texans) were painted with a rising sun on their wings.  They flew overhead in waves, and were followed by one explosion after another.  We were standing at the fence separating Hickam Elementary School from Pearl Harbor, watching the filming of Tora! Tora! Tora!

My father would take me to the base flightline during the filming.  As we walked the line of vintage aircraft, he would give me more information than I could remember on what was parked there.  That’s when I heard him say, as a formation of B-25’s took off,  “Listen – that is the sound of Freedom.”

Watching the Eagle land on the Moon in 1969, is, was and still is, a moment to remember.  We even watched the recovery carrier pass through the harbor.  Someone had made the decision to truck the Apollo 11 crew in their containment unit the “long way” from the harbor to the waiting transport at Hickam.  The “long way” included almost every family neighborhood from the port to the Hickam fightline.  We all got to wave to the astronauts as they took their slow tour through our neighborhood.  From then on, I added manned rockets headed for space among my sounds of Freedom.

I remembered as we watch the USS Enterprise enter the harbor.  Most of the neighborhood kids lived at the Officer Pool (it was a 2nd floor pool, showers were on the 1st floor), but it was on the edge of the harbor.  I would have to say we felt something was wrong rather then knowing what was going on.  A ship had simply entered the harbor and we climbed out of the pool to watch.  The tugs were there but not the fire tugs; no welcoming bells and whistles.  On the Enterprise, every flat surface was lined with its crew in dress whites – except for the bow.  On the bow were perhaps a dozen, flag-draped coffins.  As it passed, we could see the stern was a twisted and burnt wreck of steel.  As she passed, not a word was said, and I felt the same feelings as I do on the Arizona.

The quiet was broken by a whisper when someone said, “That’s the sound of Freedom.”

Almost 30 years later, I got a chance to return to Hawaii.  My job required some traveling, so I dragged my lovely wife along – kicking and screaming, so she said.

We had some time in Honolulu, so the Arizona was included in our schedule.  I was hoping my wife could feel some of the emotions I remembered.  The Arizona is, of course, a National Park now, and you must to get there early.  We were lucky to be in line for the first boat, but first, we needed to sit through a brief movie explaining December 7, 1941.

The theater held about 200 and was about half-full.  The makeup of the audience was about 50 youngsters – well, I consider anyone in the 20 to 30 year-old range young now.  A couple dozen were my age, and the last quarter consisted of old warriors.  You could tell they were veterans because of the way they carried themselves.  I would have to say a good half the tourists were Japanese; about even across all age groups, including the warriors.

The Park Service must have really screwed up, because in a time choked by Political Correctness, this movie wasn’t.  It told the facts in living black & white; about what happened that Sunday morning, who started it, why, and the expected outcome.  There was a deathly silence when the 20-minute film ended.  I had always heard the Japanese presented a different history of WWII in their schools, and the shocked looks on the Japanese youngsters confirmed my suspicions.

The youngsters were very subdued (compared to before the movie) as we walked out to the boat.  As for the rest of us, we knew what honor and respect meant.  The relative peace was short lived, however.  If there were youngsters who were showing the Arizona the respect she deserved, they were overshadowed by those who didn’t.

The Arizona is still the island of tranquility, but you must feel it with your heart and spirit.  You can’t hear it; it sounds like every other tourist attraction.  The old warriors and we still believe in what the Arizona stands for.  We removed our hats, walked softly, spoke in whispers, touched the walls with reverence and watched our flowers float upon the rainbowed water.   I am very adept at blocking out distractions, but I could see the noise and the camera flashes were getting to the old warriors.  You could see it in their eyes and posture.  Both the American and Japanese were disgusted by the disrespect being shown to the Arizona by the youngsters.  I know the thought of tossing them all overboard was going through their minds, as it was mine.

As we returned to the dock, I spent some time blocking out all the noise on the boat and listening carefully to my heart, spirit, and the Arizona.  I wanted to hear the sound of Freedom, but I could not.

Perhaps I am overreacting, but the evidence of what happened 60 years ago in Hawaii is still evident there today.  The evidence is all over the islands – if only people would look.

The house we live in back in 1968 has been stuccoed over now, but in ’68, the evidence of filled-in bullet holes was plainly evident.  The hidden fuel depot is still hidden, along with the hangers built into the mountains.  The Army base is still located inside Diamond Head, and yes, the gun emplacements are still evident in the seaward face of Diamond Head.  These days, what’s left of the gun emplacements on the beaches is just considered badly designed restrooms and showers.

I have lately begun to wonder what is to become us.  Our public schools focus on thought control, not individuality.  Politicians are more interested in controlling the People, rather than acting as our responsible servants.  So-called government “rights” are replacing personal rights.  We are told we must give what we’ve worked so hard for to others who haven’t.  We are taxed beyond the point where we can support our families, and the policeman on the corner is not a friend you can depend on anymore.

But then, a single sentence, spoken by a niece who is only 24, shows that what we revere is not dead.  Her 6-month-old twins were watching a formation of F-16’s roaring overhead, and my niece was pointing to the jets as she said,  “Listen – that is the sound of Freedom.”