Local Teacher and Student Learn Lessons and Honor Fallen Heroes in Hawaii – Pearl Harbor
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
“You had to be there.”
It’s a phrase we spout when trying to tell a story that can’t fully be articulated without actually being present in a moment. When it comes to history, however, we must learn about what came before us by reading textbooks, hearing stories and visiting memorials.
Dawn Crone, a dual-credit U.S. social studies teacher at Brownsburg High School (BHS), knows this firsthand, which is why she jumps at any opportunity that helps her enhance her teaching skills. Such an opportunity presented itself when she and one of her students, BHS senior Olivia Freeman, were selected to participate in a one-week trip sponsored by the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites partners. Sacrifice for Freedom: World War II in the Pacific Student & Teacher Institute invited 16 student-teacher teams to study World War II in the Pacific on-site in Honolulu, Hawaii, from July 24 to 31, 2022. Crone and Freeman were ecstatic to partake in something so special.
“You never really understand history until you’re actually standing in the spot where it happened,” Freeman says.
This past summer, teachers and students from Indiana, North Carolina, Texas, Colorado, Utah, Michigan, Iowa, New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, Hawaii, Guam and Singapore met in Honolulu for a special deep dive into history that went well beyond what a typical tourist gets to experience. For example, they visited the Bishop Museum (essentially the “Hawaii Smithsonian”) to learn about Hawaiian culture. The group also went to the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum.
“We saw a plane that had been stuck in a swamp and still had bullet holes in it,” Freeman says.
Another highlight was touring the Defense Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Accounting Agency, a place that rarely gives public tours. This is where forensic anthropologists collect bones from those missing in action since World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War and try to put the bodies back together so they can send them home. The main lab holds 50 to 60 tables of remains that staff is currently trying to identify.
“To see this massive room with all these remains laid out in skeletal form was emotional,” Crone says. “They placed the skeletons where their feet are all facing the American flag in the middle of the room, so that if they were alive they would be standing at attention, facing the flag.”
The tour guide talked about commingling because when bodies were being collected, they were in mass graves and bones were mixed up. They never close a case because there’s always new technology being developed that will help them continue to search for other soldiers. They even have an entire underwater archeology division.
Going to Pearl Harbor was also enlightening as the group got private, behind-the-scenes tours led by museum directors. They heard about how December 7, 1941, unfolded, second by second. One of the most surprising facts they learned was that the USS Utah was the first ship to be destroyed during the Pearl Harbor attack. It had all of their antiaircraft artillery on it so when it was demolished, the United States didn’t have adequate defenses.
“We had timed artillery shells that when they reached a certain altitude would explode the aircraft, but planes were flying too low and they mistimed the explosion of the shells,” Freeman says. “As a result, they exploded on land and had civilian casualties.”
Stepping aboard the USS Missouri, the ship where Japan surrendered during World War II, was surreal.
“We were in a turret and got to sit in a control-room chair,” Freeman says, noting that it was the room where the movie “Battleship” was filmed. “It was cool to learn facts about the USS Missouri while being on it.” They saw how torpedoes were loaded, got to use Morse code devices, and went into the radio room where they received the official transmission that Japan had surrendered.
Truly, being there made history come alive.
“I’d read about and seen pictures of the USS Arizona and the USS Oklahoma that had capsized, but to physically be there on-site, seeing and hearing the stories, really sent home the role America played and the significant loss that happened on December 7,” Crone says.
At the USS Arizona memorial, every student and teacher was given a piece of lei to drop into the water.
Crone, Freeman and the others participating in Sacrifice for Freedom ate dinner in the USS Missouri’s cafeteria and then had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend the night aboard the ship. It wasn’t swanky, of course. Sleeping quarters were tight, the bunks were incredibly small, and the bathrooms were down the hall and up a ladder. Nevertheless, Freeman slept soundly, then awoke early to watch the sunrise.
Prior to the trip, each student had researched a service member from their state who was either memorialized or buried at Punchbowl Cemetery in Honolulu. Freeman studied Steward Third Class Vernon Kirk, an African American member of the United States Navy during World War II. Born and raised in Mount Vernon, Indiana, by Henry Augustus Kirk and Annabelle Kirk, in October of 1942 the 19-year-old enlisted in the Navy. As a submariner, Kirk spent his time on the USS Snapper and the USS Swordfish. He was tasked with making sure the officers and vessels were combat-ready.
Through her research, Freeman learned that Steward Kirk did three patrols with the USS Swordfish. On December 14, 1944, the USS Swordfish left Pearl Harbor for her 13th and final patrol. The USS Swordfish acknowledged orders on January 3, 1945, but that was the last time she was ever heard from. By February 15, 1945, radio contact with the USS Swordfish was confirmed as lost. It’s hard to determine what happened to the USS Swordfish and her crew, but records indicate that while preparing for the Battle of Okinawa, she was sunk somewhere in the nearby waters due to a mine in the water, taking 89 men, including Steward Kirk, to the bottom of the ocean. Both Kirk (21 years old) and his crewmates’ confirmed date of death is January 12, 1945. For his sacrifice, Kirk was awarded the Purple Heart posthumously.
On their last day in Hawaii, each student read their service member’s eulogy – a poignant ceremony for all.
“To finally give a voice to our silent heroes was phenomenal,” Freeman says.
Crone and Freeman found Steward Kirk’s name on the “eternal patrol list.” It’s inscribed on the waterfront memorial for the USS Swordfish at the Pacific Fleet Submarine Museum in Pearl Harbor. It was the first time anyone had ever visited Kirk’s name on that marble wall.
Engaging with history in this way can be life-changing.
“With so few veterans left, it’s becoming history in a book rather than learning from actual people,” Crone says. “As a result, many students are disengaged in what happened in the past.”
Freeman calls the experience humbling.
“It really puts everything into perspective because a lot of these service members were just three to five years older than I am,” she says. “History is so important to understanding the sacrifices that were made. It’s important to know what surrounds you and why it surrounds you, so that moving forward you can make the world better.”