(NATIONAL CEMETERY OF THE PACIFIC – HONOLULU)
It looked strange from the moment we pulled up to the Punchbowl, a sacred Hawaiian site once the location for human sacrifice before Cook's arrival to the islands. Our tour bus, filled with 23 WWII Pearl Harbor survivors as part of The Greatest Generations Foundation came to the beautiful location in an old crater above downtown Honolulu for a closing ceremony and presentation. The National Cemetery of the Pacific pays tribute to those veterans of all faiths who served their country, many who lost their lives during WWII.
I admit I was not happy two days earlier on the morning of December 7 at the Pearl Harbor Memorial service. Thousands of people in attendance, yet President Barack Obama – born just a few miles from the USS Arizona memorial – was not only a no-show, but did not bother to send a written or videotaped greeting of thanks to these men. And then there was no-show Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, his bio and picture listed in the program and scheduled to deliver remarks in person. The president I can slightly understand, but the former Colorado senator? What was going on that was so important he couldn't make it on a private government jet to attend the last and final major Pearl Harbor survivors gathering? I am not aware of the circumstances, and perhaps there was a truly legitimate reason for Salazar's absence, but I have yet to hear it. Instead, the National Park representative on site read a bizarre partial statement from the Secretary and then stopped mid-sentence, paused awkwardly, and said, "Thank you."
As we drove in to the Punchbowl site with thousands of graves, large U-Haul-type trucks were lined along the boulevard as people with headsets scurried about acting busier than they really were. It took me just a few seconds to realize this was a production crew from the CBS series Hawaii Five-O. Their scene had something to do with lead character McGarrett visiting his father's grave, which in reality was surrounded by the real graves of WWII heroes. It didn't seem right. But I let it go.
Within 30 minutes of our arrival, we conducted a small ceremony that began with the presentation of the Colors by the University of Hawaii Army ROTC. The National Anthem followed. I emceed the event and looked out on men who had been injured December 7, 1941 – they represented the USS Arizona, Tennessee, St. Louis, Pennsylvania, Lexington, Medusa, Sacramento, Antares, Maryland, West Virginia, Stoddard, Tanney, Vestal and Pyro. This group of men also represented Ft. Kamahameha, Kanehoe Naval Air Station, Hickam Field, Schofield Barracks, Fort Shafter and Ford Island. At least eight were in wheelchairs. Average age: 91. The others sat in plastic chairs underneath a large, temporary tent. The cemetery representatives could not have been more respectful and there to assist.
Three hundred yards away and clearly visible to them, no one on the CBS production stopped for the anthem or any part of our program. This included the ending of our presentation – Taps and the moment of silence. I was perturbed, but because our veterans faced me, they couldn't see the disrespect. The ceremony ended and several men hopped on golf carts to visit their fallen comrades buried in other parts of the cemetery.
I decided to take a closer look at the production area from the public thoroughfare and walked closer to see catering trucks, grips, associate directors, production assistants, lighting workers, countless minions and the lead director – a Hollywood-looking middle-aged man wearing a black "AD/HD" t-shirt, a play off the rock band "AC/DC." I stopped well behind the cameras and out of view when a local production assistant politely told me to keep moving. I was not happy and told her we had WWII vets who would likely be in the area. I was told, "Sorry, sir. We rented this part of the cemetery today." My blood started to boil, but I remained calm and moved on. As I stood behind the tent, the director yelled at everyone to: "Get out of the line of sight! If you don't belong here, clear out!"
I made sure to go where I was basically invisible, 40 yards from the nearest camera when the director heatedly walked to me. He was not happy.
"Can you please move?" he said sternly.
"OK," I said. "Where would you like me to go? I have Pearl survivors who are here visiting their fallen comrades at a public cemetery."
He couldn't have cared less and told me that if we stood behind a tent, that would be fine. He walked away completely frustrated and yelled at a local assistant: "I am doing YOUR job! You wanna come back here again? Do your job!" I felt sorry for her. It wasn't her fault a group of vets actually came back for a real reason to this cemetery. Having been around a few movie sets, I knew this was how they were especially if the scene was behind schedule, etc. Keep in mind at this point I was alone. It wasn't as if our entire entourage was milling about. There was only one veteran anywhere near me and was walking toward me from up the road.
Walter Maciejowski, 90, from Massachusetts soon caught up and I quickly tried to run interference so he wouldn't get yelled at as he stood there in his cream-colored Pearl Harbor Survivors cap. Walter was clueless and was just amazed at the technology. He whispered in my ear as the scene was about to begin 75 yards away. We both stood exactly where the director had told me to stand.
Two minutes later, another guy with an earpiece came up and simply asked us to leave. Period. He was polite, and I politely retorted: "This is a public place and its Pearl Harbor week. These men have made it possible for you to shoot here today. Plus, this is where your director placed us."
He told me he agreed but to please leave with Walter. Oh, he did offer to get us a water or soda to enjoy as we left. We declined.
I told Walter we had to go, and we started to walk away as lead actor Alex O'Laughlin and Terry O'Quinn from Lost did their scene. As we moved out, yet another woman came up to us and with a fake smile told us Walter couldn't take any pictures.
"Our actors get very skittish around still cameras, sir."
"Funny, and yet they act in front of them," I said, ticked off because we were already leaving.
I wish he hadn't done it, but Walter asked if they by chance had a hat for him. To his face, she said, "I doubt it but I will try." She never did.
We continued to walk down the road and now 300 yards from where we had stopped previously. At that moment, yet another production assistant, this one in his 20s and with frizzy blonde hair, told us we couldn't stand near the graves because we were in "the line of sight" of the actors. This was physically impossible. We were back near the podium where our ceremony had been held, and oh, we were behind a tree. I let this kid have it with a few select, powerful adult words and basically told him what he could tell his director. I give you my word we were NEVER in the way, NEVER loud and followed every instruction.
It gets worse.
The TGGF program had brought 24 red roses to place at the gravesites on the opposite side of the Punchbowl. The program crew actually had one of their men wearing a backpack and earplug walk through – infiltrate – our rose-laying ceremony hushing everyone.
It was a disgrace.
He ruined the somber mood and my blood was now beyond boiling. Thankfully most of our vets were so focused on placing their roses they didn't catch what was going on. This moron laughed as he communicated with some other crewmember on the other side of the cemetery via his cell phone headset. About this time, a caterer walked over grass and flat headstones, through our vets gathering, with a plate of blackberries and salmon for the actors to snack on.
We loaded our bus after the roses were placed and the vets climbed on and took their seats. Our oldest Pearl veteran 96, youngest 88. One of our crew guys asked the production guy in the backpack if, as we left, one of the actors could take two minutes to hop aboard during a break in shooting to say hello to our veterans as we drove past. Word came about three minutes later via an earpiece, "No."
That didn't surprise me.
I stayed at the front of the bus with Tim Davis, president and founder of TGGF. He told me to let the vets know what had happened, but I'd already made up my mind I most certainly would. I took the bus microphone and informed the vets in a nutshell what happened. Many of them booed, and then I told them as we drove by, if they felt the urge, to give the CBS crew a one-fingered military salute.
We rolled past and about half our veterans flipped everyone off as we rolled out of the Punchbowl. We all had a good laugh and most agreed we should write CBS and boycott the show and its sponsors.
Having been in the news business nearly 22 years, I understand how the crew was just doing a job and there's big money involved. Shows have to be shot, actors coddled and issues down to rain and daylight come into play. And then, there's common sense and respect.
It would have been an issue if all 24 veterans and 10 staff had come near their "set" (again, on tops of graves of fallen soldiers) and were loud and in the way. Instead, it was just one or two that went to see the on-location production. They didn't speak, and of course were much friendlier than I was. However, I know many of them were upset. I also thought about the tax incentives this production much receive from taxpayers!
Perhaps you side with the production team, simply trying to film a scene at an historic location. Regardless, I hope I've conveyed how this is just how it is at the end of 2011: people, often consistently, do not show their elders the proper respect they deserve. Of all the weeks of the year – Pearl Harbor week – where fewer than 200 arrived on Oahu for their final goodbye, this was the time for CBS, Hawaii Five-O and the average American to rise up and go the extra mile to accommodate these men. To show respect. To say thank you.
Production on such a grand scale isn't free. To that I say: neither is freedom.
In honor of these men and to show your support, I urge you to share this on Facebook, Twitter, at church, at your poker game, at schools, at work. This shouldn't be a quiet little island secret. Let people know via social networking. Stealing a line from a colleague: Hawaii Five-No!
Newsradio 850 KOA, Denver. Colorado's Morning News co-host
Board member, The Greatest Generations Foundation (www.tggf.us)
Sean P Eagan
Former Chairman American Cold War Veterans