One path to immortality, it's said, is to live in the memories of those who survive you.
Today is the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Some 2,403 Americans died that day. At least four of them were from Fort Wayne, servicemen stationed on two battleships struck in the first few minutes of the massive Japanese bombing raids that morning.
Seaman Maurice Spangler and machinist mate Arthur Glenn were among 429 who died on the USS Oklahoma; gunner's mate Marshall Coffman and seaman Harold Summers were aboard the USS Arizona and died with about 1,100 others.
Spangler had enlisted in the Navy in 1938 and had been on Pacific sea duty for most of his three years of service. Glenn was a middle-aged career Navy man, having joined up a few days after the United States entered World War I in 1917. Dec. 7, 1941 was not only the last day of his life – it was his 43rd birthday.
Seaman Raymond Boynton, who also died on the USS Oklahoma, is sometimes identified as a Fort Wayne resident. But the U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency lists him as a resident of Michigan.
Coffman, a North Side High School graduate, also enlisted in 1938. Summers, who also died on the USS Arizona, was said to have lived with his aunt and uncle in Fort Wayne during school vacation months, but the POW/MIA agency listed him as a resident of Ohio.
When their ships sank, hundreds of crewmen on the Arizona and the Oklahoma were entombed together. Many of the bodies on the Arizona have proven impossible to recover. The bodies of the crewmen who died on the Oklahoma were recovered, but most of them remained unidentified.
For decades, Glenn and Spangler were listed as “nonrecoverable.” Then, in 2015, the government launched a project to match the remains to the Oklahoma's unaccounted-for crew members using DNA. The two Fort Wayne men were among those finally ID'd. Glenn was reburied under his own name in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu in 2018; Spangler was reburied Sept. 12.
When Glenn's family members gathered to tell stories they knew about their long-lost relative, there was rejoicing that he could finally be laid to rest. “It answers questions,” said his great-great nephew, Matt Glenn, of Terre Haute. “He's identified now. He has an identity again,” he told a Journal Gazette reporter.
In “Sum,” a book of fanciful essays about the different ways the afterlife might work, neuroscientist David Eagleman wrote of three stages of death: cease of functions; interment and “The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.”
That passage is often quoted as a comforting tribute to the departed. But Eagleman's essay of imagination is also a cautionary tale: He warns that those in such an afterlife risk being remembered for the wrong reasons.
For quite a long time after Dec. 7, 1941, honoring those who sacrificed their lives at Pearl Harbor each year was as natural as breathing. All adults could tell you when and where they heard the news. Many of them would go on to recount the many ways the disastrous attack that morning changed the course of their lives forever.
Those who went to war could tell you of the horrors they experienced. Those who stayed behind spoke of the aching loneliness and worry back at home. And all mourned the friends they never saw again.
Most of those people are gone now. Of course, their children absorbed those stories and understood, perhaps in almost the same way, how deep a tragedy Pearl Harbor was and how daunting a challenge it foretold. But now those children are growing old themselves. Passed to still another generation, those stories could become diluted and distorted.
We owe it to ourselves and to the men and women who died that day to do our best to keep those memories alive and true. The attack and the courageous if futile American response that morning set the tone for the worldwide struggle to preserve freedom that was to follow. Americans were to show a unity of purpose we especially miss today.
But those we lost that morning didn't have time to consider their place in history or think of themselves as prime representatives of the “greatest generation.” They were serving their country, focused on doing their duty, and they died far too young.
Like Maurice Spangler. Just a 20-year-old kid from Indiana waking up on what promised to be a beautiful morning on a battleship moored in a harbor thousands of miles from his home. We mustn't forget him.