For the better part of a decade, I’ve have the honor of creating portraits of Pearl Harbor survivors with some of the images published by The Smithsonian a few years ago. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the surprise Japanese attack on the sleeping American naval fleet. The attack pushed the Americans into a costly yet decisive Pacific war that took countless lives.
Being the son of a war father, my childhood was filled with war stories and no tale was greater than the attack on Pearl Harbor. So when given the opportunity to meet and document the men who were there that fateful morning, I took great pride in photographing both survivors and several Japanese pilots who dropped the torpedoes that early Sunday morning.
Every year, Pearl Harbor survivors and their families would arrive in Honolulu to mark the anniversary. I would search out where the survivors were meeting and I would set up a small photo studio consisting of a white, seamless background and meticulously light the portraits to convey the depth and history of the men who sat for my photographs.
I’ve made dozen of portraits of these men and heard many stories of war and heroism. But the gut wrenching story of Arizona survivor John Anderson tears me apart every time I stare at his picture and recall his tale.
We only got to spend a very short time with Mr. Anderson but he told us his story of that fateful Sunday morning. John, who was then 24-year-old in 1941, said he could still hear the bombs exploding and remembers the buzz of the Japanese bombers flying above. He spoke of the oil fires on the water, of the men who’s burnt skin slid off their bones. He talked of the screams, the smoke, and the carnage. He told us of the horrors of war.
But his pained storied turned to the worse as he spoke about his lost twin brother who also was aboard on the USS Arizona that morning. Jake Anderson was assigned to the gun’s turrets and, according to some accounts, was killed during a misfire inside the turret. As the ship was sinking, John did not know where Jake was and desperately looked for him. But as other sailors abandoned ship, he tried to crawl back inside the wreckage to find his brother but was forcefully dragged into a rescue barge by other sailors claiming him his brother was dead.
All of his life, John carried the heavy burden knowing his twin brother died and his remains were just below the waters inside the rusty hull of the battleship.
“I wanted to get my brother,” he lamented.
This morning before heading out to photograph the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, I did a quick search to see if any news reports had been written about John. Sadly I read John died last year at age 98 and his ashes were being interred inside the USS Arizona at turret no. 4 today.
Tears fell onto my keyboard as remembered his war-scarred face painfully starring back at me through the lens. I cried because I captured a man who’s face bore a tale of loss. But with his death, I knew John finally would be reunited with Jake, the brother he so desperately wanted to rescue. John’s ashes would be placed inside the turret where they said his brother had died, and John would finally be free of his life-long burden.
A few days before the 50th anniversary in 1991, John gave an interview to the National Parks Service about he and his brother’s time together aboard the USS Arizona and the surprise attack that morning. After losing his brother, John astoundingly never held resentment towards the Japanese soldier as they “…followed the orders of their superiors and were quite capable warriors.”
I’ll never forget John’s words and his amazing stories of the attack and the love for his twin. As I write this I tear up and can only be grateful he finally can reunite with his brother.