We Can All Be Heroes

Posted: May 27, 2001 12:00 AM
Owen R. Smith shows me an envelope with clippings about that most infamous day. A photo shows his ship, the light cruiser Phoenix, as it moved through battleship row in Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. A thick black cloud towers above and behind the Phoenix. That Sunday morning, he was 19, a third-class petty officer. He was among a group of sailors about to board a cruiser to attend church services on a larger ship. Then the planes appeared. He rushed to his battle station in the after-fire control station, where it was his job to set the range for shells loaded into the anti-aircraft guns. "We weren't a big enough target," Smith says to me to explain why the enemy did not attack his ship directly. The Japanese fighter planes "were going for the battleships." Smith remembers what he saw as his ship got underway to leave the harbor. Instead of the upright sea of vertical masts he had known, he saw a field of tilted masts. His finger smoothes over the black cloud in the photo of the Phoenix. This is the Arizona, he explains. The Arizona was burning, smoking and sinking. The sea was filled with the dead and dying. He saw the faces of mortally wounded men. "As we sailed by," he says, "they were cheering." We have just finished watching a screening of "Pearl Harbor." Smith clearly enjoyed the movie. He inhaled the scenes of Oahu as a happy paradise before the bombing. He recalled the year he spent there before the United States was bombarded into war. He sadly watched the celluloid version of real carnage that had killed long-dead friends. He appreciated, he later notes, that "Pearl Harbor" made a point of showing the many small acts courage that occur in a war. How does a man get through such horror? "I've tried to remember just how I felt," Smith answers. "I wasn't scared. You do what you're trained to do. The Navy, they train a person to do exact things under exact conditions. It's tough training, but you do it. And when you do it, well, you're concentrated on that." The Phoenix, Smith notes, was credited for taking down two planes in the harbor, and sinking one submarine when they made it out that morning. Pearl Harbor would become one of nine battles in which the Phoenix fought. "There was a spirit among the people who fought in World War II that if they weren't there, getting the job done, somebody else was going to have to do it," is the way "Pearl Harbor" screenwriter Randall Wallace described the Owen Smiths of that war. "That spirit cannot be ignored." The spirit shows itself in how many survivors improved themselves afterward. Smith went to college on the G.I. Bill, met his wife, Erma, and started a successful business that sterilizes medical equipment. At 79, the Castro Valley, Calif., resident has three children, six grandchildren and his health. You can't watch the movie and not wonder: Could I be that brave? "Pearl Harbor" shows a country that doesn't want to enter the world war, but steels itself and fights back when the moment comes. Could Americans show the same spirit if this pampered country were attacked today? "You know, Debra," Smith answers quietly, his eyes moist. "I think they would."