A Final Goodbye for a Dad and a Pearl Harbor Survivor
Saying goodbye — “God be with ye” — happens a lot: friends who know they’ll see each other next week; parents who will see their college students at the end of the semester; families who hope to see their children in the military off to a deployment; an angry but temporary epithet after a quarrel with a friend; and bereaved relatives to their deceased loved ones with the hope for a reunion in the world to come.
This goodbye refers to the latter, specifically in the context of what happened 79 years ago when you, my dad, Sgt. George T. Morton, and an Army buddy from Fort Armstrong on the Honolulu Harbor skipped church to hang out at Waikiki Beach.
You hauled a 30-pound portable radio for the music to harmonize with the surf and probably a few giggling girls getting a glimpse of a 20-year-old man who should have been a model.
A little before 8 a.m., the music cut out, returned, cut out with some confused chatter and finally an order for all military personnel to return to their bases. You caught a ride on a bus. The driver would stop every few blocks to look up for planes, and eventually took you to Fort Armstrong. You recounted the events in an interview with the National Park Service.
You were initially ordered to dig slit trenches in the coral, which was virtually impossible. So you got sandbags instead. The fear of an invasion was real. The waves lapping on the beaches enhanced the paranoia. Despite the basic training, soldiers would fire their weapons at the dark.
Fort Armstrong wasn’t a direct target, but you told me it got hit by an anti-aircraft shell or bomb that tore up some vehicles. Old maps and photos showed a base with barracks, harbor equipment to offload ordnance and light tanks. warehouses, ancillary buildings and a parade ground. You and your fellow soldiers spent the nights on the parade grounds, because that posed less risk than being in a building that could have been a target for a bomb.
For the rest of the war, you continued your quartermaster work, and experimenting with ordnance that would work best on the frozen western Aleutian Islands, the only U.S. territory captured by the Japanese.
Later, you were transferred to Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to test ordnance with some early computers.
Post-war, you earned an engineering degree at The Ohio State University; married; moved to north of Cincinnati to build our house, now under the Ronald Reagan Cross County Highway; have three kids; worked at General Electric building jet engines; lived in France for three years; retired to pursue other interests including being a docent at the Taft Museum in downtown Cincinnati.
But you didn't talk much about your presence at what a lot of historians regard as one of the most pivotal moments in the 20th century
You shirked questions about whether you would go back to Hawaii.
Something changed in the late 1980s, though. From what you told me and from what I inferred, you returned to Honolulu and visited the Arizona Memorial. And nearly 50 years of emotional garbage blew up. The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association had people around to help with the likes of you who had repressed so much.
In 1991, a long year of unemployment for me, we were having lunch on a floating restaurant across the Ohio River from Cincinnati where you grew up as a street kid in the Over-the-Rhine, to which he would refer to as a bring-your-own-switchblade neighborhood.
The next day, he would fly to Honolulu for the 50th commemoration.
So, I, edging into reporter mode, asked with he did on Dec. 8 and the following days.
You told me you were sent to to the nearby airfields to pick up bodies and body parts. You took them to the city morgue, dusted them with formaldehyde and stuffed them in pillow cases or bags used for cots. "Death has a smell that clings to you.” While he got used to the smell, others didn't. People in dining halls lost their appetites real fast when he walked in, so he showered before meals.
In 1996 I interviewed you for the Casper Star-Tribune and learned you'd met Casper resident Walt Becker, founder of Becker Fire Equipment Co., and perhaps the only sailor in World War II who had three ships shot out from under him during the war starting with the Oklahoma.
We went together for the 60th commemoration -- three months after 9/11/2001 -- and the 65th in 2006.
Health and other issues derailed plans for future visits.
Two years ago, we family gathered for a Pearl Harbor ceremony in a little park in northeastern Ohio.
We saw each other again on July 22, 2019, for your 98th birthday. A bunch of us thought you would live well beyond 100.
That was not to be.
On Aug. 26, the staff at the assisted living facility dressed you for breakfast. Within a few minutes you were gone.
A long time ago, I vowed to revisit Honolulu after your death.
I did, surrounded by the beauty of Hawaii and the subtext of the horrors of 78 years before.
In 2019, the number of survivors had dwindled sharply to maybe two dozen from the thousands we saw in 2001 and 2006.
This year’s commemoration is virtual because of the pandemic.
Next year may be the last goodbye for all the survivors.
However, there will always be remembrances
At your funeral, I read from Isaiah 40 and my favorite punk poet and singer Patti Smith. You probably wouldn't have been fond of her, but she nailed it.
Rise up hold the reins
We'll meet again I don't know when
Hold tight bye bye
Paths that cross
Will cross again
Paths that cross
Will cross again