I remember my first time seeing the USS Arizona memorial, a stark white but simple edifice perched on the sparkling cerulean waters of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It was oddly beautiful, in its tragic way. Fellow sailors in their equally brilliant dress whites lined the flight deck of my aircraft carrier as we ceremoniously rendered honors to the sunken mausoleum. We did so because, as is often the case in life, there is much more to the USS Arizona memorial than what appears on the surface.
Beneath the memorial is the USS Arizona itself, the battleship famously caught on film during the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor as its superstructure exploded in flames and was torn asunder, the victim of a direct hit to its massive ammunition stores. Nearly 1,200 of the 1,500-man crew were killed by the explosion or trapped within in the steel confines as it sank, taking just 12 minutes to disappear forever. The majority of their bodies remain there, buried at sea in the remains of the ship they called home.
It was barely four months into my naval career when Memorial Day would first become a personal event for me. Word was spread around the Navy barracks that Chief Petty Officer Ryan Bell, my instructor at DINFOS (better known as the Defense Information School in Fort Meade, Md.), had been hospitalized for a massive heart attack. Little did we know at the time that we were experiencing a real-life application of a lesson we’d only recently been taught in our training — when a servicemember passes away, they are only publicly identified 24 hours after notification of next of kin. So it wasn’t until the next day that we found out Chief Bell was dead at just 33 years old.
Getting to know Chief Bell had been a profound experience for me during my first few weeks of training at DINFOS. I reported there immediately after two months of intensive training at Navy boot camp, where recruits are taught to fear as much as respect anyone wearing a khaki uniform, the common attire of chiefs and officers. But getting to know Chief Bell taught me that chiefs were people too, people who were here to nurture our growth into productive sailors of a very proud U.S. Navy.
Chief Bell was a muscular and youthful black man who stood tall. He was quick to show off his bright smile and had a way of making every interaction personal. He wanted to know how we were doing, what we were doing and how he could help. Because most of all, he was a teacher. He taught us to become masters of public affairs, or as he liked to put it, “the storytellers of the Navy.” He felt he had the best job in the Navy and wanted to make sure we all felt exactly the same way.
I got to know Chief Bell best on the first Friday night of our holiday stand-down that winter. Most of my classmates caught flights home immediately, but I decided to save a little money and fly back to San Francisco the next day. Consequently, Chief Bell and I were pretty much the only people in the Navy barracks that night. We chatted in the duty officer’s workspace with a ballgame on in the background, sharing experiences and learning from each other. He didn’t care that I was a seaman recruit, the lowest rank in the Navy. To Chief Bell, we were equals who both had something meaningful to contribute.
That was the last time I would see him alive. I flew home Saturday morning and wouldn’t return to Maryland for two weeks. It wasn’t long before word got out and I, along with other concerned sailors, asked if we could go visit Chief Bell in the hospital. We found out the next day why our request was impossible.
After the news had sunk in, I realized I had something to offer my fellow sailors. I went to the command master chief and told him that I was a trumpet player and would like to play Taps at Chief Bell’s memorial service, if they would have me. I was 21 years old when they struck the bells for Chief that day. As the final strike resonated throughout the room, I lifted my trumpet to my lips and let out the most important notes I’ll ever play. The first note warbled as tears ran down my cheeks, but I found confidence in thinking of Chief Bell and the rest came out as strong as he was. I did my duty as best I could for my fallen friend.
In my five years in the Navy, I had to play Taps for four more sailors taken before their time. I also played for services remembering the battle of Midway, at burials-at-sea and, of course, on Memorial Day. What I want to be clear is that Memorial Day isn’t about me, it isn’t about you, it isn’t about anyone who can read this account. It’s about those sailors trapped beneath the waters at Pearl Harbor, it’s about the Marines who died charging Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima, it’s about the soldiers who didn’t come home from Iraq. It’s about Chief Petty Officer Ryan K. Bell, USN. Memorial Day is something we carry with us because they can’t.
Alexander Tidd is a San Francisco native recently returned home after a five-year stint in the U.S. Navy. Serving as a mass communication specialist, he deployed three times aboard an aircraft carrier and currently is finishing his bachelor’s degree at the University of San Francisco.