Why 48 STARS-The Tribute?
As a son of a WWII Veteran, I grew up hearing the “war stories” of the South Pacific. The events, the lives, the deplorable conditions and the death found on the war islands were painted as living pictures by a patriotic man that lived it first hand. As any child of the “Greatest Generation” we saw their lives through their eyes, the occasional old war movie, and the “I was there.” There was always the story within a story.
Sometimes in life you only learn to truly appreciate those stories, and the men and women who lived them once they are gone. The sacrifices they made in the most destructive period in human history should never be forgotten. “We did what we had to”, I have heard over and over. Their lives have shaped our world today. The freedoms and choices we enjoy, the opportunities to build our lives as we choose are there because they fought and died for these enduring gifts.
My father, Richard W. Schmidt served his country as a Navy Seabee. The group had the official motto, “Construimus, Batuimus” – “We Build, We Fight.” His three years in the South Pacific as a young man from Indiana would entail island hopping with the Marines and Army troops. After the war, he would mostly relive the amusing fun of a USO tour and their Hollywood types or Pacific torrential rains, the rot of the jungle or the rats “as big as a small dog”. He would recall these memories often with broken laughter. On occasion, he would slip into the dark side of the war. His presence, body posture and voice tempo would change – a painful place of memories he did not like to revisit.
These men and women who fought WWII were cut from a unique cloth. Toughened by a deep economic depression and woven tight to withstand the onslaught of the most critical time in modern history, this generation was the right generation; at the right place at the right time. The battles and wars would only be won because they gave it their all, unselfishly.
Today, our world would be so different if the war had not ended in the Allies favor. It is very hard to imagine what our planet would be today if the Axis had succeeded in their sinister efforts.
This story is being told through first-hand accounts reflecting patriotism, honor, life and death. It is this journey that will be captured through 48 STARS. The journey of a 48 star American flag will weave these stories together and become a living testament to the Greatest Generation.
48 STARS – The Flag
As many of my friends and family know, I like to go to antique and junk stores to look for those old forgotten items that remind me of my grandparents, parents, childhood or simply an item that catches my eye.
48 STARS – The Find
I was in such a store, when I came around the corner and in an instant I heard my deceased father’s voice in the back of my head saying, “Get that crap off there!” There, hanging on the wall was an amazing and gorgeous, old 48 star American flag. She was weather stained and tired with visible repairs and a patina that only a lifetime of service could give it. Someone, once, had cared for this flag.
Why was my father’s voice ringing so clearly in my head? Was it because of the way in which it was displayed? The other items hanging upon it and leaning against it were old rusting metal hand tools, shears, and the like.
My father, Richard W. Schmidt, served three years in WWII in the Pacific theater as a Navy Seabee. Their motto was “We Build, We Fight”. He has been deceased for several years, but his pride in this country and the sacrifices made by his generation are still strong in my memories.
Whoever hung the flag didn’t pay it the respect it deserved. I struck it up as simple human ignorance. I listened to my father voice and went to the front counter of the store and told the employee I wanted the flag. I returned to the area it was hung and began to remove the items around it, letting them fall to the floor into a pile. I’m sure the store owner wasn’t happy with me handling all the items around it in that manner, but I really didn’t care.
48 STARS – No Ordinary Flag
This wasn’t an ordinary flag; it is a 6’ x 8’ 48 star United States flag, the same flag that our fathers and grandfathers would have seen through their own eyes. This was the same flag they fought under during WWI, WWII and the Korean War. By the markings on the flag’s hoist, this flag was originally a 6’ x 10’ flag. The stripes, apparently, had been trimmed back nearly two feet to remove weather damage that was beyond repair. This was done to many flags to extend their usable life. The flag still holds fast the strength of her linen fibers. This flag deserved a better home and a maybe place of honor.
The flag found a home and was proudly displayed in my tall living room for about a year. I had a number of friends and family inquire about it. I could only speculate about her history or her age. A large flag generally wasn’t privately owned during this time period. Had it been flown in front a government building? Was she flown on a ship? Did it see battle? It really didn’t matter to me. What, I believe, mattered most was simply what the flag represents to our country… freedom. It is a symbol unlike any other in human history.
I didn’t know the flag’s history, but in time I would give her a future when I decided that on a trip to Hawaii I would have it flown over the USS Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii to honor of my father and his service during WWII. The same USS Arizona that was bombed by the Japanese Imperial Navy where hundreds of young men died on December 7, 1941 and their remains still lay entombed inside her haul.
It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon on October 27th, 2012. The day had arrived when I would honor my father and this flag. I, along with my daughter Jordan and three friends took the ferry to the USS Arizona memorial- a large, white, beautiful architectural span that crosses the midship of the sunken wreckage but does not touch her haul. I had spoken ahead of time to the park ranger in relation to flying the flag. The five of us along with the rest of the visitors disembarked the ferry onto the memorial. Meeting the park ranger, we made our way over to the tall flag pole, the only item attached to the wreckage of the once powerful battleship. My daughter and friends were given the task to record the event with their cell phones and cameras.
The park ranger commented on how with all the flags that are flown there by visitors, she rarely if ever sees “old ones like this”. I put my focus to attaching the old flag to the halyard line making sure she was secured. I became completely unaware of how the other visitors around me had taken notice. Eyes cast upward, necks strained to keep the flag in view, I cautiously raised it above us wondering the whole time if the tired old flag would survive the strong winds.
On that warm day in Pearl Harbor with perfectly blue skies this old 48 star flag came to life stretching with the wind. The flag was the same era flag that the USS Arizona had flown on her fatal day on December 7, 1941. Set against the larger 50 star flag that flew above her, the patina and age of the old gal became very evident.
The time had come for me to bring the flag down. She flew for a short ten minutes and as I slowly brought down the 48 stars; the strong breeze from the north held the flag at its full length and locked the flag into an embrace with the upper brim of the white memorial. It was as if the seasoned flag whispered, “I’m here…” This moment was captured in a photo taken by my daughter, Jordan.
I climbed the memorial railing and reached high to pull the flag around the memorial. I had not thought about folding the large flag but I’d soon learn that it wouldn’t matter. Out of the crowd 4 men with “high and tight” haircuts in civilian clothes appeared. One man carefully gathered the stripes as I held the stars. Silently each took their places around the length of the flag and with military precision began to fold the flag. I later learned that each of them had served or were still in the military. I thanked them for their service to our country and they in turn thanked me for the honor of taking part in paying respect for our fathers’ flag.
The Mighty Mo
Two hours later our little group found itself upon the teak deck of the USS Missouri. It lay in anchor facing the USS Arizona in a solitary attentiveness and guard over the sunken Arizona.
Taking the ship tour, I had carried the flag under my arm in a clear, soft plastic case. As we walked among history, I gazed upward to the towering flag staff of the old ship. In a single moment I thought, ‘Why not?’ I left the group and went to the head Bowsman at the entrance to the ship. I asked if he would raise a flag upon the massive ship. Politely he stated that the gift shop was in charge of that and it was getting too late to hoist a flag. I watched his eyes as they moved toward the straight rows of stars under my arm. His eyes grew larger and his facial expression went from being reserved to excited. He asked if that was an ‘old flag?’ I answered it was. Without hesitation he said, “You’re darn right we’re going to hoist her!”
He gathered the ship’s historical volunteers as I went back to the tour to collect my group. I had noticed earlier a stately gentleman who was also with the tour. His physical appearance and posture indicated he likely had been in fit shape his entire life. His baseball cap, polo shirt and ring said, ‘WestPoint’. I walked up to him and asked if he was military. He said he was a 33 year, retired Army Colonel – West Point. Out of honor to the military service personnel, I said, “Sir, we are about to raise this old flag upon the USS Missouri, would you consider the privilege?” Without hesitation he said “It would be my honor.”
We left the tour and climbed several flights of near vertical stairs to a flight deck high above the starboard side of the massive ship; the same side of the vessel where the Japanese signed the Declaration of Surrender. I handed the flag over to the Colonel. He and the Bosman proceeded to thoughtfully attach the 48 star flag to the halyard. The Bowsman then stepped back and announced over the ship’s radio intercom that “A 48 star flag is about to be raised on the battleship USS Missouri.”
The Colonel at that moment shot the flag up the mast like a rocket (as is appropriate for proper flag rising.) She flew strong again in the same northern breeze, much like upon the USS Arizona. At that moment, I looked around at the small group and everyone’s skin was goose bumped.
The Beginning and End
The flag was brought down slowly and again gathered up by the attendants. The Colonel, in appropriate take charge fashion, directed the folding of the large flag. With precision and careful detail he directed the group to the final tuck. He completed the ceremony and with great reverence, handed the flag back to me and thanked me. I returned the “thank you” and said that I was very honored he had raised the flag.
In a matter of just two hours this old tired flag, flew proudly upon the vessel where WWII began and then on the vessel where the war in the Pacific ended.
Upon returning home to Nebraska, I placed the flag into its elevated display position. Months went by and I couldn’t get that day and those events out of my head. I raised that flag to the USS Arizona memorial to honor my father and discovered something of much greater value. I discovered the symbolic power the American flag has to this nation and around the world, as well as to the men and women that have served and those that died under her.
This was the early beginnings of the 48 Stars project and the journey this one flag will undertake to give this country’s greatest generation an opportunity to educate and remind us what so many have sacrificed to give this country and many other countries the freedoms we still enjoy today.
Shawn M. Schmidt
48 Stars Creator and Director