It was about the time Ben Affleck, playing ”Pearl Harbor”’s rakish flyboy Rafe McCawley, took an errant champagne cork to the face that William Chew turned to me and declared, ”This is getting ridiculous.” We were at an opening-day showing of the movie in Seattle, and my grandfather, a Pearl Harbor survivor, was sick of the romantic shenanigans.
For months, he had anticipated watching one of the defining moments of his life played out on the big screen. But an hour into the film, all he’d seen was soap opera. ”Are they ever going to get to Pearl Harbor?” he asked, his 78-year-old eyelids heavy with boredom. But his impatience was displaced by shock when the three-hour film finally got to its vivid re-creation of the Japanese sneak attack on the Pacific fleet in Hawaii. Minutes into the sequence he clutched his cane with one hand, covered his eyes with the other, and shook his head slowly.
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, my grandfather, then a 19-year-old seaman first class aboard the USS St. Louis, was lying on his bunk eating an apple when he heard explosions. Racing to the light cruiser’s deck, he saw Japanese Zeroes flying so low he could make out the pilots’ faces. One of them waved. Others dropped bombs that barely missed his ship. My grandfather manned his gun station and fired back, but hit nothing. Soon, with engines full steam, the St. Louis attempted to escape the harbor, guns blazing. My grandfather remembers breathing smoke and hearing screams as the ship passed the smoldering, sunken Arizona and the crippled Nevada, which was also trying to make for open sea (it didn’t succeed). And he saw a submarine surfacing to fire two torpedoes right at the St. Louis. ”I can see them today,” he recalls matter-of-factly during our drive home. ”I just knew they were going to take us out.” Instead, they exploded against a coral reef. The St. Louis blasted back, damaging the sub, and escaped. The ship returned after the attack to find the harbor littered with bobbing corpses. ”There was no being afraid,” he says. ”Everyone went to their assigned station and duty. Besides, there was just no time.”
The previous paragraph is the most that many in my family have ever heard my grandfather say about Pearl Harbor. Though answering my questions didn’t upset him, it’s not a story he chooses to reminisce about. ”They were bad times,” he says, ”hard times. You think of all your friends and acquaintances who died. It’s hard to take.”
While ”Pearl Harbor”’s filmmakers may view that as a compliment, the praise ends there. ”I was more interested in seeing the ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ version of events,” he says. ”And I do think ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ was a better version of what happened.” Still, he believes ”Pearl Harbor” is respectful to those who fought and died during the attack. ”I think it honors the memories of those who were there, and I think the battle scenes capture the essence of what it was like to be there,” he says. ”But everything else? That was just an Errol Flynn fantasy.”