One day, when I was a boy and had never heard of Pearl Harbor, I heard my father telling a story to someone about something that had happened when he was in Hawaii during World War II. I asked him, “Was Hawaii in World War II?” When he stopped laughing, he said, “Yes.”
I was amazed; the scene that played on the movie screen in my brain involved people wearing grass skirts and leis, firing rifles and tossing hand grenades.
I thought about that and about a lot of other things when we visited Pearl Harbor a few days ago while in Honolulu for the Baptist World Congress.
I couldn’t help but wonder, as I walked over those grounds, if I might be walking in the footsteps of my father.
Champ Lee Ruffin enlisted in the United States Navy sixty-eight years ago today, on August 14, 1942.
Between then and the day of his honorable discharge on January 6, 1946 he served in several places but, if I am interpreting his Notice of Separation correctly, he last served in Air Transport Squadron Eleven out of Honolulu. He served as an Aviation Radioman and I remember him saying that he served on a Navy transport plane and that he was based in Hawaii.
I would very much like to be able to ask Daddy about his time in the Navy; I would very much like to ask him if when he was stationed in Hawaii he might have walked where I walked; I would very much like to talk with him about his service to our nation during World War II.
Unfortunately, though, he died in 1979 at the age of 57 and, also unfortunately, I in the twenty years that I had lived to that point had not yet reached a point where I really cared to have a real conversation with him about such things. And he, like so many WWII veterans, did not readily offer much information about his experiences.
Were Daddy still living he would be 89 now and in my imagination I can see us sitting around talking, I about my peacetime trip to Hawaii for the purposes of fellowship and tourism, he about his wartime sojourn there for the purpose of saving the world from totalitarianism and fascism. I can imagine how the conversation would go as I would tell him about my experiences in Hawaii and as my stories would trigger his.
I wonder what he would remember. I wonder what he would tell.
I wonder what he would refuse to remember. I wonder what he would decline to tell.
Once, when I was around twelve or thirteen, my mother and father planned a trip to Memphis to visit their friends Ed and Melba Baldwin and their family. Because of my mother’s ill health at the time, Daddy decided that we would fly. That Delta flight from Atlanta to Memphis was the first flight of our lives for my mother and me; more significantly, I think, it was the first flight for my father since he had left the Navy some twenty-four years before.
I can still see Daddy, his face glued to the airplane window, as he looked down at the clouds during that flight to Memphis, and I wonder if he was in his mind’s eye seeing the clouds that hung over the blue waters of the Pacific as he flew over that massive body during his military service.
I wonder if somewhere in his mind he stopped for those brief moments being Department Manager of the Finishing Division of Thomaston Mills Champ Ruffin and became once again Aviation Radioman Second Class of the United States Navy Champ Ruffin.
I wonder what he saw as he peered out that airliner window.
But I wonder even more what he saw as he walked around Honolulu and as he flew over the Pacific Ocean.
Perhaps there are some men left out there who served with him and who could share some memories with me. I have undertaken a very belated effort to find them if they exist.
Regardless of how that search turns out, I am grateful that our trip to Honolulu prompted me to think about these things.
I am grateful that they prompted me to think about the service of Aviation Radioman Second Class Champ Lee Ruffin of Yatesville, Georgia, who on this date in 1942 committed himself to doing his part to serve our country and to preserve our freedoms.
I wish I could tell him how proud I am of him.
I hope he knows.