The term “last hurrah” is used so often, that a skeptic could say it has no meaning.
But this week, when some of this nation’s oldest living veterans — men in their 90s — gather in Hawaii to mark the 75th anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, no one will deny that undeniable truth.
One of the veterans who had planned to attend was Clare Hetrick, a survivor of the USS Arizona. But he died in Las Vegas in April at the age of 92. His family plans to have his ashes interred with his fellow shipmates.
I interviewed Hetrick in December 2006 when the Navy escorted him and his family to a little-known section of the battleship that was salvaged after the war and stored on a shady stretch of Pearl Harbor shoreline.
Over the years as a reporter with The Honolulu Advertiser, I wrote a lot of stories about the anniversary and covered it several times. Every one of them was special and a tale I relished telling. But this is my favorite. It was an emotional experience for everyone there. Here is the story as originally published on Dec. 7, 2006.
THE OTHER ARIZONA
By Mike Gordon, Advertiser Staff Writer
Clare Hetrick leaned on his two replacement knees and a wooden cane, an arm’s length away from a piece of his distant past. Then, the 83-year-old former mess cook on the USS Arizona swept a mottled hand across the rusted skin of his old battleship.
“This is the sight of my life,” he said. “I never dreamed that I’d see it again.”
It was the rarest of reunions.
Most of the battleship lies at the bottom of Pearl Harbor, a sacred memorial to those killed during the Dec. 7, 1941 attack. But a section of the ship remains safely hidden on Waipi’o Peninsula — several tons of steel cut from the Arizona wreckage in 1962.
Hetrick, a Pearl Harbor survivor from Bullhead City, Ariz., told the Navy that this would likely be his last trip of any kind. On Tuesday, the Navy granted Hetrick’s request for a visit. He brought his entire family — his wife, three sons, their wives and his three grandchildren.
“We didn’t believe we’d ever get to do it,” said Jeanne, his wife of 61 years. “He doesn’t show emotions but his whole insides is shakin’. When we get this over with, it will be a big sigh of relief. We got to see it.”
Clare Hetrick — Clare is short for Clarendon — joined the Navy because he got tired of going to high school in Lemon Grove, Calif. It was either that or get a job, he said.
Hetrick was an 18-year-old seaman first class on the Arizona the day it was sunk. He was shaving in the forward head when the attack began and immediately ran to his battle station several decks below in the aft magazine for the 5-inch anti-aircraft guns. He was dressed only in his skivvies.
“When we took the big hit, we lost all power,” he said. “It knocked us all off our feet. There were five of us in there.”
The men scrambled up a ladder to escape. But Hetrick found another sailor stuck in a hatch above him. Hetrick didn’t know it then, but the man had broken both his hips when the blast threw him around. He pushed the sailor through the hatch and they somehow made it over the side.
“If I had been almost anywhere else, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I didn’t get so much as a scratch.”
Hetrick spent most of the war aboard the USS Saratoga, fighting in campaigns that included the battle of Iwo Jima, for which he earned a Purple Heart. One night, he and his ship survived five kamikaze attacks.
After the war, he joined the Air Force, where he served for 20 years. He retired as a master sergeant and moved his family to central California, where he became a farm labor contractor.
His children knew their father was an Arizona survivor, but the depth of responsibility that came with that was something they didn’t quite understand, said youngest son Bob Hetrick, a 43-year-old butcher-turned-information technology student from Las Vegas.
“My whole life I grew up being the son of an Arizona survivor and for a lot of years, I didn’t know what it meant,” he said. “We went to parades, but I didn’t understand what it meant until my 20s, that surviving the Arizona was a big deal.”
The Arizona crew suffered 1,177 casualties in the attack, including an estimated 900 men who still are entombed in the hull. It is something none of the survivors can forget, a responsibility that brings them back.
But the salvaged section of the battleship — a length of sagging steel not much longer than a city bus — isn’t part of any Pearl Harbor tour. And it isn’t a memorial, either. It’s stored at the end of a dirt road on a restricted section of Navy property. It’s only real purpose is to provide pieces of memorabilia for small memorials across the country.
The Hetricks had heard stories of its existence, but not how to secure a visit. Last December, however, they were told to call the Navy, which arranged for access.
For nearly a year, the trip was a source of excitement. Family members were prepared to quit their jobs if they were denied time off.
So when they found themselves actually standing before it, their feet crunching on rusted flakes around them, the Hetrick clan was humbled.
‘I’LL NEVER FORGET IT’
When he first saw it, Ben Hetrick swirled with emotion. A Vietnam War veteran who can’t bring himself to visit that war’s memorial, the oldest of the Hetrick sons viewed the salvaged Arizona section with a touch of fear.
It took his breath away.
“I don’t know how to explain my feelings,” said Ben Hetrick, a 59-year-old tax consultant from Modesto, Calif. “When I first saw it, it sent chills down my spine. Now that I’m closer, it’s almost friendly.”
After a few minutes, tears slid down Bob Hetrick’s cheeks.
“It’s incredible that it’s still here,” he said. “It’s a piece of history and I’ll never forget it and I don’t think my family ever will.”
He had been to the memorial with his father, but to touch the ship himself — even a section as ordinary as the boat deck and the galley — was entirely different.
“The memorial is a place of remembrance and to pay homage to those who did lose their lives,” he said. “To me, this is more of something to celebrate the survivors. This is the original Arizona survivor. I liken this to my dad and the rest of the survivors.”
Throughout the visit, Clare Hetrick was stoic. He’d viewed this as a homecoming of sorts, but what he saw was disturbing.
“Is this what you thought?” said Jeanne, his 78-year-old wife.
“No,” he said.
Nothing was recognizable anymore. What was left of the ship was falling apart — just like the old survivors, he said.
But the steel embraced him nonetheless, took him back to a time when its interior was slathered in white paint and he was agile enough to race to his battle station on two good knees.
“I didn’t realize it is as tore up as it is,” he said. “Otherwise, I’m not disappointed. I’m proud to be here. It gives you a pit in your stomach.”
Reach Mike Gordon at 525-8012 or email@example.com.