As I scrolled through Twitter this morning, I came upon a tweet by Sam Whiting of the San Francisco Chronicle that completely changed my Memorial Day. It was the story of George Retelas, a 36-year old who inherited his grandfather’s camera bag from World War II, which also happened to contain his grandpa’s war journal. This set the younger George off on a journey to learn as much as he could about his grandfather George’s war experiences as a naval aviator. Funny how a tweet can rearrange your entire day.
I quickly got ready, sipped a cup of tea on the road and headed out to Naval Air Station, Alameda where the lovingly restored Michaan’s Theater was to be the scene of a free screening of the movie “Eleven” in honor of Memorial Day. This documentary film project provides an oral history of how George’s grandfather and the surviving members of “Carrier Air Group 11” fought WWII in the Pacific from a land base on Guadalcanal and the aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet, now anchored in Alameda.
George, donning a bomber jacket given to him by the gentlemen he interviewed and got to know during the eight-year long project, opened up the event with a heartfelt introduction about how he stumbled onto this project, which has obviously become a labor of love for him.
You can read what started as a blog about his grandfather’s journal at his torpedosquadron11 blog. As word about George’s blog got out, he was put in contact with some of the remaining members of Air Group 11 and the blog eventually turned into a movie, buoyed by a Kickstarter crowd funding project. You can learn more about upcoming screenings about his important movie “Eleven” here. It’s already getting lots of buzz at film festivals – recently winning “Best of Fest Documentary” at the Livermore Valley Film Festival.
As soon as the movie began and I heard the voices of the WWII vets begin to tell their stories, I felt my face get hot and streams of tears begin to flow. It’s a poignant piece of work, and the stories of these brave aviators remind us how fragile life is and about the tragedies of war. Sadly, five out of the 11 veterans featured in this film have passed away since their interviews with George – demonstrating how imperative it is that we all capture the stories of these World War II veterans before they are all gone. Just yesterday, I read that one of the two remaining Pearl Harbor Survivors in Marin County, Fran Jenkins passed away – leaving only George Larsen of Novato to tell us his stories. You can read more about them here.
My dad was a Pearl Harbor survivor, but he rarely talked about the war. I’ve heard this from many other children of veterans. That generation didn’t consider themselves heroes. They thought they were just ‘doing their jobs.’ I wish I had asked him more questions about his experiences. The Navy was such an important part of his life. But, being a child of the sixties, I sympathized with the anti-war movement, and used to think military service was not necessarily something to be proud of. My dad always said he wanted me to be a navy nurse because when his ship, the USS Curtis, a seaplane tender, was hit in Pearl Harbor, he was thrust into the burning water and was burned over 90 percent of his body. The Navy nurses helped him heal. To have looked at him, you would never have known that he endured such agony.
If you’re lucky enough to know a WWII veteran – or a veteran of any war – please ask them about their experience. It’s really important.
After the film ended, many of us who watched the documentary trekked down to the USS Hornet, anchored a short distance away at the Alameda Naval Air Station. If you’ve never been to the USS Hornet (I hadn’t), it is well worth the visit. It’s now a museum and is open to the public. Traipsing around inside this hulk of a ship will give you a glimpse of what life was like for our service men (and women). I was amazed at all the nooks and crannies inside the ship, like a library, a post office, and a store. It was like a city unto itself. Some say that the ship is haunted. I can see why – as there are many remnants of the past that seem to be still alive here. While I walked the ship, I could hear big band music playing up on the deck. How perfect.
A touching memorial honoring those who have paid the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ was given on board the ship, complete with honor guard, a military band, an echo bugle accompaniment of “Taps” and flowers tossed into the Bay over the ship’s deck.
In honor of my father, Bill, who served twenty years in the US Navy and for all the men and women who served their country, I flung a flower over the bow of the ship and thanked him (and them) for their service. I only wish I had said “thank you” to my Dad in person, while he was still alive.
As I was about to leave the ship, an elderly vet probably in his nineties, walking gingerly with his cane approached the exit right in my direction. I turned towards him, paused, and said, “Thank you for your service.” And, last but not least: Thank you, Dad. I’m so proud of you.