American Enterprise Online
November 2, 2005
By Alan W. Dowd

After she fell below the water’s surface on December 7, 1941, the battleship Arizona became a tomb for 1,177 sailors. She and her crew, of course, still lie there, silently reminding us of the price of our freedom. But the Arizona would do more than serve as an eternal memorial and final resting place for those men:  She would donate her guns to the war effort, to her sisters who survived that fiery morning, to her distant cousins who would avenge that Day of Infamy. The University of Arizona Library reminds us that ammunition, machinery, equipment and guns from the Arizona were salvaged for other warships. In fact, as the Naval Historical Center adds, two of Arizona’s big guns were actually used in coastal defense emplacements on Oahu.

So what’s this have to do with today? More than you might think.

Quietly, without much fanfare or attention, a small handful of Americans gathered last month to mark the fifth anniversary of the USS Cole bombing. The Cole, like the Arizona, was the victim of a surprise attack. It came on October 12, 2000, and it claimed 17 sailors. They died, like the Arizona’s crew, half-a-world away, while their families and friends back home were still asleep.

Unlike the Arizona, the Cole didn’t succumb to the waters. Instead, with a hole in her side, the Cole was carried back to the United States, to Ingalls Shipyard in Mississippi, where she would undergo a year of reconstruction and repair.  As fate would have it, the repairs were completed on September 14, 2001—just three days after that second day of infamy. 

By 2002, the Cole was back at sea, fighting in the very war that bloodied her, the war that had no name until a year after she left part of herself in the Gulf of Aden. Navy Capt. Christopher W. Grady was the first to skipper the rebuilt Cole. “From the Straits of Gibraltar to the coast of Syria, we were driven,” he intoned at this year’s memorial service, “driven to take the fight to the enemy and to do our part against the scourge of terror.”

The Cole’s tenacity and refusal to quit are fitting, given the life and times of its namesake, Sgt. Darrell S. Cole. Sgt. Cole volunteered for the Marines in August 1941, and was promptly ordered to serve as a bugler. Although he applied for a combat assignment, he was rejected. But a year after enlisting, he got his chance to fight on Guadalcanal, when he was ordered to fill in as his unit’s machine-gunner.

After that battle, he was again assigned as a Field Musician; again he asked for a new assignment; and again, his request was denied. But once his unit was sent back into battle, he traded in his bugle for a gun. During the Battle for Saipan, Cole’s squad leader was killed, and a wounded Cole took command of the entire squad. He was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for “his resolute leadership, indomitable fighting spirit and tenacious determination in the face of terrific opposition.”

After the invasion of the Tinian islands, Cole came to be known as “The Fighting Field Musician.” On February 19, 1945, Cole led a battery of machine-gunners onto Iwo Jima. I’ll let the Navy pick up the story from there: “Moving forward with the initial assault wave, a hail of fire from two enemy emplacements halted his section's advance. Sergeant Cole personally destroyed them with hand grenades. His unit continued to advance until pinned down for a second time by enemy fire from three Japanese gun emplacements. One of these emplacements was silenced by Cole's machine guns. When his machine guns jammed, armed only with a pistol and one hand grenade, Sergeant Cole made a one-man attack against the two remaining gun emplacements. Twice he returned to his own lines for additional grenades and continued the attack under fierce enemy fire until he had succeeded in destroying the enemy strong points. Upon returning to his own squad, he was instantly killed by an enemy grenade. By his one-man attack and heroic self-sacrifice, Sergeant Cole enabled his company to move forward against the fortifications and attain their ultimate objective.”

Neither Sgt. Cole nor the ship bearing his name knew the meaning of surrender.

Nor do the people of New York, which is why it so fitting that the Navy’s next amphibious transport docking ship is named the USS New York and just happens to be built with steel from the fallen World Trade Center. A huge structural beam from the South Tower—weighing ten tons—will form the core of the New York. But according to Patrick Cartier, whose son died in the South Tower on 9/11, the steel from Ground Zero represents much more than the core of a new warship. It embodies “the very soul of the event—all of that steel which housed all the people fell along with them, and they were all consumed in that terrible fireball,” as he explained to the Stars and Stripes.  

Once completed, the New York will have the capacity to carry up to 1,000 Marines into battle, along with landing craft, amphibious vehicles and assault helicopters.  

The ten-ton span of steel represents a tiny fraction of the 1.6 million tons of wreckage hauled away from Ground Zero, of course, but the symbolism is unmistakable. As New York Governor George Pataki put it, “On September 2001, our nation's enemies brought their fight to New York…The USS New York will now bring the fight to our nation's enemies well into the future.”

Whether it’s embodied by the name of a hero or the spare parts of a sunken ship or the jagged pieces of a fallen building, symbolism can be a powerful and motivating force, especially in a time of war. To rebuild or even resurrect something once destroyed or left for dead is to send a demoralizing message to the enemy: You have failed.

The Japanese received it when Gen. Douglas MacArthur made sure to summon Gen. Jonathan Wainwright to his side during the surrender ceremonies aboard the USS Missouri. Thousands of Wainwright’s men were lost during the brutal Bataan Death March; Wainwright himself barely survived almost three years as a POW.

I suspect at least some of the jihadists, when they aren’t looking for a new cave to hide in, are getting the message as well. As I write this, the Navy’s Cole website simply and aptly reports, “USS Cole is currently underway.” The New York will join her in 2008.