by B.A. Van Sise
Men in my family like fights. We are warlike. We like war. The Van Sises spent most of the 19th century hootin’ and hollerin’ and wompin’ and stompin’; rich in accounts but poor in character, they were the lesser relations to a host of other, more indigent families. Dozens of newspaper accounts from that century refer to my ignoble ancestors being murdered by enthused local citizens: Frederick Van Sise murdered in an election night bar fight. Charles Van Sise done in with a hay bale. A hay bale! Half the foul play done unto us was by enraged husbands, boyfriends, fathers; the remainder was done mostly for the sport of it, a sort of… community bonding. Whenever town morale began to dip, why, it was time to get a brick, get a pitchfork, get a gun, and get a Van Sise.
Yes, the Van Sises have always liked fights, and we’ve sent our boys (and sometimes girls) to fight in each and every American military encounter since Karel Van Sÿse went and picked the wrong side in the Revolution. More of us came back than didn’t, so you could say we’ve got a pretty good record. By the time 1938 rolled around, well, it was time for the sixth generation of fighting Vans, and off went my grandfather – and his far more lascivious, lecherous brother Ellsworth – into the warm, welcoming bosom of the United States Army.
Grandfather became an artilleryman; Ellsworth, now officially Service Number 6903046 and dream-rich from smoky nights in the cinema houses of New York, joined the Army Air Corps.
They were energetic young men fresh out of the Civilian Conservation Corps, and it’s easy to imagine the lives they thought the investment of enlistment might return. The military offering a ticket out, they probably daydreamed of their eventual triumphant reemergence in civilian society. Surely, they would come back pregnant with the provinces: bursting with new thoughts, interesting experiences, and – unusually for Van Sise men men – unmurdered lives.
Having known both men, I can imagine my quiet, contemplative grandfather idling the hours imagining anywhere that wasn’t home. I can also imagine ne’er-do-well dandy Ellsworth, looking forward starrily to a long career of well-ironed uniforms with starched collars and well-aligned decorations, all piled haphazardly on the floor whilst he acquainted with hostesses all around the Pacific Theater of Operations.
The Army Air Corps did what they could to accommodate him, On June 1st, 1939, Uncle Sam shipped him from the Brooklyn recruit depot on an old World War I troop transport, the USAT Republic, halfway around the world to Hickam Field, Hawaii. The sprawling new air base, formerly known as the Hawaiian Air Depot, had been opened just a year before and was filled mostly with B-18s and cargo craft, and placed directly adjoining the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.
He was assigned to the 72nd Bombardment Squadron, promoted to corporal and tasked to ground crew. Having been a truck driver in civilian life, before being promoted he was retrained for his duty taxiing aircraft from and to hangars before and after flights. After a terrible accident in which he, drunk one early morning, crashed one aircraft on the ground into another aircraft on the ground, at a very low speed, he was promptly demoted.
For most sailors and airmen at Pearl Harbor and Hickam, Fridays and Saturday nights were for enjoying the local frivolities. Weekend liberty was regular and well enjoyed at the dive bars on Hotel Street and the Chinatown boogie houses.
Honolulu was a tougher town then than now. Every arriving passenger ship was met by the vice squad, and any unescorted woman in certain neighborhoods would be routinely arrested, fingerprinted, handed a copy of the “Ten Commandments” and warned that to avoid real trouble they would do well to eschew Waikiki Beach and to not marry service personnel.
Nevertheless, Hawaiian life was quiet, its weather idyllic; beer was fifty cents, pleasurable company was three dollars and few, if any, expected any problems.
Saturday, December 6th, 1941 was a party night, like any other Saturday, and Ellsworth spent the night down on Hotel Street at Smith’s Union Bar. Utterly and devastatingly drunk, he stumbled back onto the base – one can imagine the encounter at the guard post – and, trying to find his barracks, newly re-minted Private First Class Ellsworth P. Van Sise, United States Army Air Forces, touched down into a sleeping heap against a hangar wall at Hickam Field.
For those of you who aren’t students of history, December 7th, 1941 was a rough morning. Not long after dawn, the Japanese surprised everyone in the world – except, maybe, Franklin Roosevelt – by bombing Pearl Harbor at dawn on a Sunday morning.
While Ellsworth had been raising an elbow at the Smith’s Union the Japanese Navy, engaged in what they called Operation Z, steamed towards Oahu. At 7:48 AM, the first of two waves – 353 Japanese attack aircraft – arrived in Honolulu.
The sun had risen over Hawaii at 6:26 AM. Just over an hour later, in the early morning light, 27 Nakajima B5N “Kate” bombers and 35 Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighters let loose on Hickam Field. Soldiers sprang to action and airmen scrambled, while the Japanese strafed planes to prevent them taking to the skies in chase after the battle.
During all of this, good ol’ uncle Ellsworth – a shameless sot who I knew in my infancy and remember clearly – lay snoring against that same hangar, blackout drunk after a night of chasing one beer after another and trying, one presumes, to carnally impale a variety of strangers. Having, one imagines, failed at one and succeeded at the other, Private First Class Van Sise, Service Number 6903046, eyewitness to one of the most infamous days in the history of the world, failed to open his eyes, failed to witness anything.
He awoke leaning on the ground against a broken wall, head pounding, to find an entire airbase smashed to smithereens around him. Nearly every plane at the air station was strafed in half, bombed to bits. The barracks were gone, the hangars were destroyed. For one hungover, private first class plopped against a mangled wall attached to a newly nonexistent building this was, to say the least, a confusing experience.
If one travels to Honolulu today, there’s a great deal left from that day and year; while the prices have gone up, the Smith’s Union Bar is still happy to host revelers on any given night; the weather is still warm, the locals still accommodating. The Pacific Fleet is still there, and so is the airfield, and so are the sailors, and so are the airmen. And every year, on December 7th, at 7:55 AM, the service members come together in an early morning ceremony to remember, and to salute, not just the fallen but all the personnel who, on that morning so many years ago, in a moment of crisis, stood up – and, of course, the one lonely airman who sat down.